Written by Michael Arndt
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Starring Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carrell, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin and Abigail Breslin
So far, as Black Sheep has been remembering the last decade in film, I have reviewed a film from each year that I had not already reviewed. For 2006, I’m doing it a little differently. I did review LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE when it was released and, as I am man enough to admit when I’m wrong, I can say that I was unfairly harsh on this indie darling. Sometimes I can be a little bit stubborn and the way this film was being market fed to the public irked me to say the least. It was being positioned as the little quirky movie that would instead of one that could and I just wasn’t happy that Hollywood had made up America’s mind for it before they had the chance to do it themselves. The truth of it is, that they probably would have anyway as LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE is like the film equivalent of getting some much-needed sun.
From the moment Mychael Danna’s plucky, jubilant score begins and the wide-eyed, crystal blue eyes of Abigail Breslin as Little Miss Sunshine hopeful, Olive, stare into the camera, husband and wife directing team, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris suck us into the vacuous life of the Hoover family. Reflected back in Olive’s big thick glasses is not just a newly crowned Miss America but rather the setup of the winners and losers dichotomy that drives this film toward its inevitable end. We are then introduced to the remaining members of the Hoover family, one by one. Each of them is done so by showing us the true core of who they are each day. The father, Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a failed motivational speaker who is having a harder time keeping his own hope alive. The brother, Dwayne (Paul Dano) is working out and crossing off dozens of days on his calendar to show his determination to as yet undisclosed goal. The grandfather, an Oscar winning performance by Alan Arkin, pretty much doesn’t care anymore as he snorts heroine in the bathroom. The mother, Sheryl (Toni Collette), smokes secretly in her car as she tries to keep it all together. And there is a new addition this evening, Uncle Frank (Steve Carrell), fresh from his failed suicide attempt. Although you wouldn’t think it, this family is pretty easy to relate to and a lot of fun to spend time with.
In the opening scene at the dinner table, you quickly learn everything you need to know about how this family works and how close it is to coming completely undone. It is another bucket of chicken for dinner being served on paper plates. They’re barely even trying anymore but yet somewhere underneath the pressure that threatens to consume them all, a little girl wants to be a beauty queen. It doesn’t matter that, to look at her, you would never think to push her in that direction. What does matter is that she wants to win. That is enough to get this dysfunction family into an even less functional yellow Volkswagen bus for a road trip that promises to be transformative for each of them. Of course, they don’t know that when they get into the car and neither do we. Dayton and Faris do a very good job of making it feel as though we too are along for this ride and they do not shy away from letting us in on both the high’s and the low’s. It can make for a very uncomfortable, claustrophobic experience at times but the six actors in this car are each so talented that they bring so many levels to what could have been a very flat journey. Instead, tiny revelations about who they are and who we are grow out of the awkward spaces.
Michael Arndt’s Oscar winning screenplay owns its originality by simply honouring what makes each of its characters human, from their flaws and their fears to the moments where their strengths surprise even them. In the hands of Dayton and Farris, novice feature filmmakers though you would never know it, you can feel the care for the words being said on screen. The choices made to make the points punch, like having two characters discuss where their lives are going when they get to the end of a pier, are so subtle and crafty that you can forgive the few moments that feel somewhat iffy. Like any family though, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE isn’t perfect. It is however a sign of hope for American families finding their American dreams not working out no matter how hard they keep at it. By the time Olive makes it to her pageant, we’ve all remembered that winning isn’t everything and that trying is all that matters.
On that note, I will try to be a lot less stubborn in the future.
BLACK SHEEP'S 2006 TOP 10
BABEL, Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inaritu
BORAT, Larry Charles
THE DEPARTED, Martin Scorcese
DREAMGIRLS, Bill Condon
HALF NELSON, Ryan Fleck
LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, Clint Eastwood
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
THE QUEEN, Stephen Frears
UNITED 93, Paul Greengrass