Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Abigail Breslin, Alan Arkin, Steve Carell, Paul Dano
Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton
I sat down last night and had a good cry.
This "good cry" began in the first two minutes of "Little Miss Sunshine," the debut film from music video and commercial directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and was intertwined with moments of deep, almost outrageous heartfelt laughter, authentic internal processing and pockets of grief, rage, release and, ultimately, hope.
In a year of such great dark comedies as "The Devil Wears Prada" and the even darker "Thank You for Smoking," "Little Miss Sunshine" comes along and practically defines the concept of a darkly comic, yet uniquely honest film. "Little Miss Sunshine" is a dark comedy, a quirky comedy, a dysfunctional family's intimate diary and, on the most basic level, a road movie that seemingly winds down both the yellow brick road and the road to nowhere.
Richard (Greg Kinnear) brings to mind Jason Alexander's second-rate motivational speaker "Bob," in a man who presents motivational workshops to half-empty classrooms while waiting for his "9-Step" path to becoming a winner to be picked up by a publisher; Sheryl (Toni Collette), his wife, is becoming weary of holding the family together on her own while being caretaker to Dwayne (Paul Dano), a teenage boy who follows the spiritual philosophies of Nietzsche by taking a vow of silence until he accomplishes his goal of becoming an Air Force Pilot, and Olive (Abigail Breslin), a slightly pudgy, pre-teen young girl who serves as the central focus of the film's storyline with her obsession on all things related to beauty pageants. Thrown into the mix are Grandpa, (Alan Arkin), who lives with the family after being thrown out of a retirement community for snorting heroin and Sheryl's gay brother Frank (Steve Carell), a brilliant Proust scholar who attempts suicide following a failed relationship with one of his graduate students and the burgeoning success of one of his fellow professors.
There are films that, when we watch them, become more than simply movies on this really big screen. They become cornerstones on our life journey. They make us laugh, they make us cry, they make us think, they make us look at ourselves, our families, our friends and the world differently. For better or worse, they somehow redefine us.
"Little Miss Sunshine" is such a film for me.
As I was sitting in the theater watching "Little Miss Sunshine," I found myself resonating deeply with each character's challenges and triumphs, secret vulnerabilities and deepest desires.
I understood Grandpa, a man who realizes he is on borrowed time and who snorts heroin more out of his desire to end his life on a high, admittedly an artificial one, rather than resigned to a meager existence in a retirement community. Perfectly realized by the understated, pitch-perfect performance of Alan Arkin, Grandpa is both uncomfortably crude and yet remarkably, powerfully present. His words, simple and sparse, are often what weave this family together in good times and bad.
I squirmed watching Richard, a man so committed to the process of his "9 Steps" that he has forgotten to blend it into his own life. There is a moment late in the film when Richard looks at Olive and something clicks...he realizes, finally, what his obsession with winning is doing to his daughter and something internally just freezes in time. This moment is the perfect acting moment for Greg Kinnear. His look, his facial expression, his eyes, his body language and his words, again sparse, are simple, utter perfection. As Richard, Kinnear is simple, utter perfection.
As his wife, Toni Collette again reminds all of us that she is one of the most brilliant actresses working today. Collette doesn't simply "act," but she inhabits Sheryl. She wears Sheryl inside and out, with a love and a passion and a devotion and a realness that made me ache for her, feel for her and made me think about my own mother's sacrifices and hurts and dreams. In a lifetime of brilliant performances, Collette gives a performance here that almost defies words.
As the Nietzsche obsessed son, Paul Dano could have easily resorted to a goth, detached caricature. Instead, he enriches his largely silent role with a young man of uncommon depth, commitment and sincerity. It becomes clear that, even in the midst of silence, Dwayne hates everyone because he fears himself and, more importantly, he fears himself with them.
Then, there is Frank. I can't say that I identified with Frank immensely. I am not gay. I am, most definitely, not brilliant.
When Frank's facade of brilliance and academia collapses under the weight of very real human emotions, suddenly I found myself just floored, almost emotionally numb. I remembered, vividly, my own suicide attempt and the efforts of everyone around me to understand, console, nurture and redefine me. I remembered, vividly, feeling both deflated and yet, oddly, renewed. As Frank, Steve Carell offers a remarkable, unaffected dramatic performance that serves notice that Carell may very well be the next comic actor to broaden his own acting horizon.
Then, there is Olive.
Often, it is painful to watch child actors. Let's be honest...they pose, they preen, they follow direction and they are far too young to have found their own inner voice.
First noticed in M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs," 10-year-old Abigail Breslin offers the second great child performance of 2006 (the first being Sarala in Deepa Mehta's "Water") as Olive, a child whose obsession with beauty pageants seems more a desperate plea to be special to someone. A scene with Grandpa in a motel room is both heartbreaking in terms of its emotional honesty and powerful in the way it will shape Olive in the very near future. Likewise, the look on Breslin's face as she looks around the pageant she has always dreamed of winning and realizes that she is "different" than these girls is like looking inside the soul of the young girl. Breslin's performance is insightful, thoughtful and, in its simplicity, becomes one of the most authentic performances by a young actor in recent years.
To reveal this film's journey would be unjust to you, the audience. Suffice it to say that "Little Miss America," unlike the award-winning "TransAmerica," doesn't go for histrionic humor as much as it invites humor birthed out of the quirks, insecurities and natural growth of its characters. In "Little Miss Sunshine," the stops along the way will resonate more deeply because they are stops we all make along our road trips in life.
Unlike many music video directors turned filmmakers, directors Faris and Dayton's pacing is reminiscent of "The Royal Tenenbaums," but a greater degree of variation that seems to serve the film's peaks and valleys quite nicely.
The film's production design is simple, yet effective. The inviting yellow VW Bus featured so prominently on the film's poster is utilized perfectly throughout the film, and the film's score companions the film's journey rather than defines it.
I sat down last night and had a good cry. In fact, I couldn't even sit down at the computer and finish my review until this morning about 5:00 A.M. "Little Miss Sunshine" is THAT kind of film...it's the kind of film that makes you laugh, makes you cry, makes you think and makes you feel. It presents its characters, the Hoover family, with honesty rather than histrionics and compassion dipped with a healthy coating of life-weary cynicism.
Blessed with a cast who "gets it" and a script that doesn't force it, "Little Miss Sunshine" deserves to be this season's sleeper hit. It is one of the most refreshing, honest and magnificently realized films in recent years.
Life can be a lot like the movies. We go to action movies to vent our rage and frustration and pain...we go to horror movies to explore those dark crevices in our lives...we go to comedies to laugh and, at times, to avoid crying...we go to fantasies so that we may dream and explore and open ourselves up...and, finally, we go to films like "Little Miss Sunshine" to remind us that, despite everything, we're okay just the way we are and, despite all our denials, we need each other...desperately.
There may be better "made" films in 2006, but "Little Miss Sunshine" is the best film of 2006. © Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic