Little Miss Sunshine (2006, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

There aren’t a lot of modern American comedies that could suitably be described as “elegant,” but Little Miss Sunshine, a road movie that attempts to gradually spin National Lampoon’s Vacation family archetypes into real people, is a most glaring exception: it’s authentic and provocative and yet seamlessly mundane to the point that it delivers — taking itself above its deceptively threadbare premise — satire and personality both. Without its professionalism, without the directors’ determination to stage this light comic adventure so carefully, it might be cute but empty. Michael Arndt’s script, the low-key direction, the dazzling performances might be nothing on their own.

Indeed, there’s no quick way of explaining what makes this film work. That’s a mark of its unique warmth. Any dismissal that it’s just another dysfunctional-family travel disaster comedy misses that its appeal is the people it fleshes out and the humor and mild pathos generated by their specific, peculiar dysfunction. A little girl named Olive (Abigail Breslin) has a spot in a beauty pageant in Redondo Beach on an inconvenient weekend; for various convoluted reasons, she and her parents (Toni Collette and Greg Kinnear) must pile into a VW bus whose clutch doesn’t work and whose horn won’t stop blaring along with her perpetually silent, cranky teenage half-brother (Paul Dano), suicidal Proust scholar uncle (Steve Carell) and heroin-addicted, horny grandpa (Alan Arkin). In a sense it could be read as pat: each of the characters makes some sort of change or reaches a crossroads, but the film’s final thesis is completely unstated — and unexpectedly touching, especially for someone who grew up in sort of a ramshackle household. The film ultimately adopts the teenager’s mindset: this is all very fucked up, but there’s occasionally reason to be proud of where you came from.

Codirectors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris come from the music video culture but their feature debut exhibits a restraint completely lacking in the narrative work of, say, Michel Gondry or Garth Jennings — we get desert landscapes, and a home so bright it could induce a migraine. Were Sunshine drenched in self-conscious quirkiness, it would fall apart. Somehow, the script’s stereotypes and artifice are overcome (and justified) by Dayton and Faris, who never arbitrarily frame or “box in” their characters. Their film is about cumulative impact, not a series of images — they cycle us through the lived-in facts of life about being around family: genuine alienation to bitterness to connection to eventual acceptance. It’s more observant than most films in its wheelhouse, more cynical but more convincing: Arkin’s character doesn’t order the kids to sit up straight or be respectful, he doesn’t make much of Carell’s sexuality; he spends more time imploring his step-grandson to “fuck a lot of women” and to wait until he’s older to start trying hard drugs. The parents in the front seat roll their eyes but don’t really argue with either point — maybe because it’s more rounded advice than what the kid typically gets from his stepdad, a head-up-the-ass aspiring self help guru. There are few moments in modern film more delightful than the brief spat over ice cream and beauty-pageant weight at a breakfast restaurant; that one sequence is a gloriously subversive counter to a lifetime of grocery store magazine stands, wherein Kinnear represents every piece of image-conscious bullshit to which we subject young girls.

The movie’s greatest asset is its actors. Kinnear plays the character who comes closest to being overly droll and one-dimensional, but he gradually redeems himself because there’s obvious pain behind his eyes. Steve Carell is exceptionally good, with a range and self-deprecating humor that make his part breathe. All of the characters have a cross to bear and none of them seem to be fully free of their deepest stresses by the final scene; you can still see the bandages on Carell’s wrists when he pushes the bus that last time, and Kinnear is no closer to fame and fortune for his Nine Steps than he was at the outset, which puts him and his wife (Collette is particularly brilliant here — watch her face and movements after Kinnear reveals his deal fell through) under uncomfortable financial stress. There’s still been a death in the family, and brakes failing, and cops nosing, and the teenager is still colorblind.

What’s amusing is, like the Simpsons all those years ago, the Hoovers are a basically decent and likable family. They accept each other’s bizarre behaviors winningly, for the most part, and the parents don’t seem to wreck their kids with excessive structure or any attempt to “mold” them. They do fight a lot — more than they healthily should, probably, though god knows I don’t have much of a frame of reference for what it’s like to raise kids, only to be one — and their typically unstated love for one another manifests itself in marvelously subtle ways. Olive putting her head on her brother’s shoulder and melting him is probably the easiest manipulation of the film but it’s also sincerely affecting; more typical is when Collette puts a supportive hand on her husband’s arm just before he gets cut off on the freeway, breaking a very brief spell.

But the film’s legacy will probably be the moment at its explosive finale, when Breslin communicates a message from the grave, via Rick James and dance moves her grandpa taught her, on the Little Miss Sunshine stage; the camera spins around to reveal the audience standing up and leaving because they are Shocked. The grotesque lineup of junior beauty queen Frankenstein monsters — a virtual quote from Tod Browning’s Freaks — is funny, horrible, wrenching. The destroying of that stage by the Hoovers is like the climax of The Producers all over again, only now everyone gives themselves away to a moment and accepts the consequences. The five of them on stage making asses of themselves is a true portrait of familial love. One cannot help but remember the cold, hardened onlookers in Richard Lester’s The Knack, and How to Get It and feel like a pissed-off 16 year-old running against the mob and wanting to reject every kind of convention all over again. The difference is, now, you know your befuddled and resigned dad can feel the same way, and you kind of understand why. These people we think we know before we meet them really are blanks worth filling in. And this is a movie that does it.

[Edited down from an astoundingly lofty review posted in 2006! (I still love the movie but goodness, I was pretentious back then.)]

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