Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 01 September 2006
Source Fox Searchlight 35mm print
The typical American family — that well of conflict and concern, of pride and embarrassment — has never been portrayed as typical. From Frank Capra’s tongue-in-cheek Arsenic and Old Lace to the mischievous Vacation films of John Hughes, writers and directors have found comedy in kin for decades, sometimes drawing from their own experiences. More recently, Noah Baumbach tracked the dark disintegration of the Berkmans in The Squid and the Whale, while Salvador Litvak’s depiction of the Stuckman family’s attempts at balancing Jewish tradition with modern youth culture in When Do We Eat? culminated with the family patriarch inadvertently taking a hit of Ecstasy. (The latter film’s tagline is “Sex, Drugs, and Matzoh Ball Soup.”) Little Miss Sunshine, the sensation at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is a subtle combination of dark humor and wry intelligence that was beleaguered by financial setbacks. Made over a span of five years and costing eight million dollars — both remarkable numbers for an independent film — the surprise is that Little Miss Sunshine was worth it.
Focused on a seemingly uninteresting family in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Little Miss Sunshine is a cheerful, unpretentious film in the same vein as Garden State and The Station Agent. Richard, the family breadwinner, is introduced to us as a quintessential failure; relying on a self-invented, nine-step philosophy that correlates success to perpetual optimism — a philosophy that, strangely enough, appears to have only eight steps — he lectures to small gatherings while holding out for a book deal destined to founder. His wife Sheryl tolerates his constant at-home homilies, even as she keeps their two children from taking him seriously. Sheryl’s brother Frank, the nation’s leading Proust scholar and a jilted homosexual, is released from the hospital after a failed suicide attempt; his personality before the incident is unknown to us, though the Frank we’re introduced to is mocking, sullen and straight-faced. Uninhibited and adorable, daughter Olive’s involvement in the titular pageant remains a secondary focus for a majority of the film, though she is enchanting in the finale. Son Dwayne, a Nietzsche-loving teen in the midst of a vow of silence, holds strong to a dream that is destined to be shattered. Richard’s father, expelled from his retirement home for doing heroin, is the family’s uncompromising yet compassionate elder; “Grandpa” is Olivia’s champion.
The spirit of newcomer Michael Arndt’s screenplay is captured wonderfully, near transcendently, by the six lead performers. Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette as Richard and Sheryl are unrefined, exhibiting a perfect incompatibility; where this marriage originated and why it has lasted is unknown, a riddle in matrimony, which is why they’re so believable. Olivia is made all the more endearing by Abigail Breslin’s wide-eyed and innocent persona. And Alan Arkin, who once portrayed literature’s peacefully anomalous Mr. Singer, disappears into the contradictory clothes and foul mouth of his character with apparent ease. The true standout performances, however, are Paul Dano and Steve Carell. Dano, who’s already proven himself worthy of strong roles with his performances in The Girl Next Door and L.I.E., adds a rich forlornness to the mostly tacit Dwayne through his slackened bearing and piercing eyes. And Carell’s Frank is a downcast hero; not unlike Proust himself, Frank’s life is represented as a string of failures. Together, they’re social castaways whose sudden rapport reminds us about the richness of family.
A road movie at heart, the film’s final third rather skillfully encroaches on social commentary, marked by the family’s sudden realization that the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant is a depraved exercise in brazen exploitation. The participants, six and seven year-old girls, are spray-painted backstage, made to dress in glitzy gowns and ostentatious jewelry; their talents, ranging from gymnastics to yodeling, are presumably the result of aggressive and overzealous parents. These children, who strut to and fro on the stage like mechanized dolls, have been stripped of their childhoods; Olivia, a free and genuine little girl, is an incongruity among the preened and glamorous contestants, simultaneously becoming the foe of the assembled pageant mothers and redeemer of her family.
Arndt’s screenplay finds comedy in the simplest of everyday subjects: an old VW bus that becomes increasingly dilapidated as the film progresses; Grandpa’s crudely candid lessons on life; and ice cream. A scene in which Frank selects pornography from the shelves of a gas station is visually riotous, as is a subsequent moment involving a highway patrolman. But the comedy is pure, authentic, because the characters are dominated by their flaws. They’re our porno-loving neighbors, our sarcastic parents and self-conscious siblings. Who didn’t, as a child, take a vow of silence? How many little girls watched Miss America and took improvised walks on carpet runways? Who hasn’t, at one time or another, cringed under the shadow of his or her family tree?
While there’s an abundance of messages derivable from Arndt’s screenplay — a rejection of self-help philosophies, an endorsement of individuality, or the endurance of family — they’re never the filmmaker’s dominant focus. Unlike other, more universally recognized directors who look for purpose in every written line, directors Dayton and Faris realize their primary purpose is to create an entertaining story. Both novices to feature film (they’re also married), Dayton and Faris seem to share an outsider’s understanding of what makes comedy — and, for that matter, film — enjoyable. Having already built an impressive career co-directing music videos and commercials, their final product could easily have been different — hurried self-insights, collective redemptions, and frenzied character development — but instead, the story wonderfully lacks a thorough resolution—because, much akin to life, resolutions are destined to disappoint. This film, on the other hand, doesn’t.