Wednesday 22 August 2007

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Wednesday 22 August 2007
Directors: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
Writer: Michael Arndt

Cast: Greg Kinnear (Richard Hoover), Steve Carell (Frank Ginsberg), Toni Collette (Sheryl Hoover), Alan Arkin (Edwin Hoover), Paul Dano (Dwayne), Abigail Breslin (Olive Hoover), Marc Turtletaub (Doctor #1), Jill Talley (Cindy), Brenda Canela (Diner Waitress), Julio Oscar Melchoso (Mechanic), Chuck Loring (Convenience Store Proprietor), Justin Shilton (Josh), Gordon Thomson (Larry Sugarman), Bryan Cranston (Stan Grossman), John Walcutt (Doctor #2), Paula Newsome (Linda), Dean Norris (State Trooper McCleary), Beth Grant (Pageant Official Jenkins), Lauren Yee (Pageant Contestant), Wallace Langham (Kirby), Lauren Shiohama (Miss California), Mary Lynn Rajskub (Pageant Assistant Pam), Jerry Giles (Funeral Home Worker), Geoff Meed (Biker Dad), Matt Winston (Pageant M.C), Joan Schneckel (Judge), Cassandra Ashe (Girl In Hallway) & Mel Rodriguez (Officer Martinez)

The eclectic Hoover family travel across state to California, to enter 7-year-old Olive in a Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant...

The times they are a-changing. Since the 80s, directors of music videos and commercials would eventually make a jump to feature film, bringing their 4-minute attention spans with them. They helped create the so-called "MTV-style", still prevalent today with Michael Bay: all style, little substance.

But since the millennium, things have evolved. Michel Gondry found acclaim with Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, David Slade just completed psychological drama Hard Candy, and now married couple Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris graduate from working with Oasis and Red Hot Chilli Peppers, to make Little Miss Sunshine... and there isn't a crash-zoom or camera shake anywhere!

Little Miss Sunshine is a simple story about a family from Albuquerque travelling to California so their youngest can compete in a beauty pageant. Greg Kinnear plays Richard Hoover, a motivational speaker; Toni Collette is his overworked wife Sheryl; Steve Carell is Frank, Shery's depressed brother and Proust scholar; Alan Arkin stars as Edwin, Richard's irrascible father; Paul Dano stars as Dwayne, a Nietzsche-reading teen who's taken a vow of silence; and Abigail Breslin plays fun-loving 7-year-old Olive...

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris craft a solid and entertaining film that focuses on performances. It's very much a character piece, so Dayton and Faris get fine work from their cast and refuse to make the pace slip into tedium. For a "road movie", Little Miss Sunshine isn't confined to its yellow VW camper van, with some nice diversions into a local restaurant, gas station, motel and a hospital, to break up monotony.

Greg Kinnear, as Richard, has played similar egotistical men throughout his career, so he's almost on autopilot here. But the script never manages to make his motivational speaker backstory click, particularly in the middle when he faces bankrupty, and because you don't really care it becomes distracting.

Steve Carell is great as Frank, a depressed homosexual who recently attempted suicide. Carell's natural leaning towards comedy means Frank is never a downbeat character really, just one of life's supposed "losers". Carell may play the same character in everything he does (to varying degree), but he gets away with it. Frank is basically a bearded, Zen-like version of The Office's Michael Scott, but undoubtedly a highlight.

Toni Collette is solid as Sheryl, but she's the most underdeveloped character. Sheryl's a typically fraught mother with very little meat to her character, so Collette just goes through the motions.

Paul Dano is mute son Dwayne, one of the quirkier characters with his aspiration to a be a fighter pilot and love of Nietzsche. Dano copes well with the limitations imposed by Dwayne's introverted nature (I particularly liked his voice-over notebook scribblings), but it comes as blessed relief when he's finally able to converse with the others.

Alan Arkin is always good value in any role, and he proves it again as the film's grandfather, a straight-talking old codger who's begun snorting drugs. It's a small role that comes to a (literal) end too soon for my liking, but Arkin's great while it lasts. But, while it's a good performance, I don't think it deserved an Academy Award for "Best Supporing Actor"!

Of course, the person you'll most remember is young Abigail Breslin as beauty queen wannabe Olive. Breslin's another of those eerily talented youngster in the Haley Joel Osment mould. She exudes spark and innocence and gets most of the film's emotional or high-energy moments; a touching heart-to-heart in a motel bedroom and the film's climactic dance routine.

The film is certainly not without charm and good performances, but there's something naggingly amiss with Little Miss Sunshine... flaws in its make-up that stop it shining. I think it's primarily because the "dysfunctional family" aren't very dysfunctional...

Sure, Frank has attempted suicide (off screen) and Dwayne hasn't spoken in months, but neither character face much difficulty as a result. Frank does have a fraught relationship with Richard (who considers him a big loser), but he's well-liked by everyone else, while Dwayne's silence doesn't aggravate anyone. In fact, his step-dad's proud of the commitment involved! Nobody else is particularly irritating or unlikeable, meaning the Hoover's eventually "coming together" in the finale doesn't feel as cathartic as it should.

Little Miss Sunshine is basically a series of problems (the malfunctioning camper van), embarassments (buying porn) and black comedy (smuggling a dead body out of a hospital), culminating in the glitzy ridiculousness of the titular pageant, wherein toddlers are smothered in mascara and bop around like midget dancers. It's quite distasteful to watch, as the Hoover family themselves realize, prompting a fun retaliation that provides the film's one decent swipe at culture.

The finale's feel-good spirit is almost good enough to gloss over the dawdling build-up... but not quite. I think the real failing of Little Miss Sunshine is with the script, which doesn't have particularly original characters, fails to develop most of them, and doesn't contain many incidents along the way.

The film would have benefitted from a few more rewrites and perhaps 20-minutes adding to it. Yes, I'm aware Michael Arndt won an Academy Award for his work here, but I can't change how I feel. The story didn't hit any big highs for me... and that certainly wasn't due to any bad performances or directorial decisions.

Still, despite its problems, Little Miss Sunshine is a light and breezy adventure, with enough good humour and likeable performances to make the trip worthwhile. It isn't the shining light its awards success would have you believe, but it's entertaining and quirky.

Fox Searchlight Pictures
Budget: $8 million
103 minutes