Seymour Smiles (Sid Haig, "Kill Bill, Vol. 2" and "House of 1000 Corpses"), an aging ex-clown in his 50's, arrives back in his hometown of Peru, Indiana content to live out the rest of his days alone in a drunken stupor.
The problem? This IS Peru, Indiana. In Peru, Indiana clowns aren't just funny people you watch once a year when the circus comes to town...clowning is a way of life in this small Indiana town.
And in this town that takes clowning so seriously Seymour Smiles is not only a legend himself, he's the son and the grandson of clowning legends Miles O'Smiles and Sonny Smiles. When Seymour Smiles returns to town, drunken stupor or not, he gets noticed...quickly.
It's not long before his childhood friend, Bob Patterson (Richard Riehle of "Office Space"), is at his doorstep and convinces Seymour to join the local amateur circus and lead their ragtag team of clowns.
Seymour isn't really interested in leading a bunch of amateur clowns, and he's even less interested in sobering up long enough to do so. Finally, Seymour is booted out by a no-nonsense Head Trainer (Hollis Resnik) and, almost simultaneously, loses his home to foreclosure. One night, broke and homeless, Seymour finds himself hiding in the circus arena in his small town. It's in the midst of this despair that Seymour first hides, then watches the local circus amateurs in practice and then, finally, rediscovers his own long lost passion for clowning.
Several apologies and a whole lot of humble pie later, Seymour Smiles is back under the big top...sober, sensitive and, well, smiling.
"Little Big Top," written and directed by Ward Roberts ("The Boy Scout"), is the sort of film that makes small town folks smile. It's funny, without being condescending and familiar without being patronizing. In "Little Big Top," Ward Roberts has created a world that feels familiar because it's filled with your next door neighbors, your liquor store clerk, your local grocery store cashier and your local drunk who always makes you laugh affectionately. As irascible as Seymour can be at times, Roberts knows the truth about small town folks like Seymour...they may drive us crazy, but we love them.
The film's intimate direction and production design can be both inviting and distracting. When Seymour reveals that he wants to rehearse his own act after hours because he doesn't like to be watched, its as if the entire production design of "Little Big Top" shifts course. Suddenly, camera shots fade away, lighting dims and there's a distance between us, the audience, and this clown who is trying desperately to find his smile again. At times, this distance is uncomfortable as a viewer...yet, it feels like an intentional decision that, ultimately, makes the viewing experience more powerful because we, the viewers, are experiencing Seymour's discomfort right alongside him. It's a subtle, amazingly insightful touch by Roberts.
As Seymour, Sid Haig creates a character unlike any he has ever created onscreen. Long recognized for his ability to bring to life the quirkiest, weirdest, sickest and darkest characters in contemporary cinema, here Haig blends touches of dark, quirky, weird and, unexpectedly, downright sweet. Capitalizing on the abstract character development of Roberts' script, Haig has created one of 2006's most memorable characters. What could have been a simple, loud and histrionic caricature instead becomes the image of a man who has either been broken or broken himself, who can be simultaneously hateful and hopeful. Haig, with uncommon tenderness, underplays Seymour with the seeming awareness that Seymour's woundedness has done more than take him out of the ring...it has taken him out of life.
The rest of the supporting cast provides a perfect complement to the emotional chaos of Seymour. As Bob Patterson, Richard Riehle offers his usual strong, sympathetic performance, while Hollis Resnik's Aggie is a delightful blend of gruff and compassion. While the team of clowns largely plays as an ensemble, Jacob Zachar, as the eager Ernest, shines in a supporting role.
As Seymour's journey towards rediscovering his smile begins to wind down, it goes without saying that he will have to once again face his fears, his anxieties and his alcohol. By the time Seymour arrives at opening night having to choose between a life of drunken fear or a return to the little big top, Seymour has become that close friend you just hope and pray is back on the path to happiness.
It is this last closing shot of Seymour where the film ends and Roberts chooses to focus almost solely on the entire focus of "Little Big Top"...Seymour's smile. While the shot itself feels a tad abrupt, the shot is perfect in the way that the entire film doesn't come down to small town Peru, clowning or anyone else...it is all about this journey that has led to the return of Seymour's smile.
Production design for "Little Big Top" is simple, yet effective throughout the film, with a particularly strong score that companions the film. Roberts' use of abrupt scene cuts makes the film's ending just a touch confusing, an observation that was shared by multiple individuals during the film's screening at the 2006 Heartland Film Festival.
Clown enthusiasts can also rejoice in that relatives of famed clowns Emmett Kelly and Emmett Kelly, Jr. appear in "Little Big Top," and those familiar with the real Peru Circus will recognize some cast members as members of the actual Peru Circus.
"Little Big Top" is a lot like Seymour Smiles. It's a smile-inducing film that makes you smile, occasionally rubs you the wrong way and, through it all, warms your heart and captures a precious, truly innocent slice of life.
"Little Big Top" is an unexpected delight and one of the true highlights of the 2006 Heartland Film Festival
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic