Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Let the "Sunshine" in

It’s been nearly three months since I saw “Little Miss Sunshine” for the first time at a “secret screening” at the Maryland Film Festival and signed a waiver not to discuss it. Given that the film opens tomorrow, I’ll assume the statute of limitations have run out.

Every year, there’s one big acquisition at the Sundance Film Festival. Sometimes they’re relatively cute audience pleasers that don’t connect with critics or big box office (“Happy, Texas”); other times they have the quality and the good reviews, but fail to connect with audiences in the way the acquirers had hoped (“Hustle & Flow”). That film at this year’s festival was “Little Miss Sunshine.”

Riding a heavy wave of hype, “Sunshine” is the real thing. It’s a warm touching, hilarious quality flick that is bound with connect with a wide audience. Ever since I saw it, it’s been the one thing I’ve been able to recommend to virtually everyone I know. To be fair, if there was ever someone who'd embrace a movie that's so celebratory of loserdom, it's me. But lest you think it’s just that I’m an easy lay, check out Rotten Tomatoes—critics are digging this thing as well. describes it as: “motley six-member family treks from Albuquerque to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in Redondo Beach, California, to fulfill the deepest wish of 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin), an ordinary little girl with big dreams. Along the way the family must deal with crushed dreams, heartbreak, and a broken-down VW bus, leading up to the surreal Little Miss Sunshine competition itself. On their travels through this bizarrely funny landscape, the Hoovers learn to trust and support each other along the path of life, no matter what the challenge.”

Those six members are (1) Olive, (2) win-at-all-costs dad Richard (Greg Kinnear), (3) exasperated mom Sheryl (Toni Collette), (4) gay Proust scholar Frank (Steve Carell), Sheryl’s brother, who’s moved in following his failed suicide attempt, (5) Dwayne (Paul Dano), 15-year-old son taking a vow of silence and (6) foul-mouthed, heroin-snorting Grandpa (Alan Arkin).

It’s the rare offbeat crowd-pleaser (an often deadly term) that manages to never feel cheap or forced or have any baity sentimental moments. (Almost) every character has an arc that’s believable and touching—some more than others.

Lest I make this sound like a “Family Stone”-esque heart-warmer, I must emphasize: “Little Miss Sunshine” is fucking hilarious. While it takes the time to develop its characters and build out relationships with them, it manages to pack in more laughs than close to any movie this year. And the laughs aren’t “Tristram Shandy” highbrow or “Meet the Fockers” lowbrow. The jokes strike just the right balance that there’s plenty here for both smarts and stupids alike to appreciate.

I don’t want to spend this whole piece on the performances, so I’ll give a quick rundown:

--At first, I thought to myself ‘we’ve seen Kinnear play this role before,’ but by the film’s end, I was convinced this and “As Good As It Gets” are the best things he’s ever done.

--Collette, as always, is terrific. She imbues so much subtle warmth and frustration into Sheryl, even if one gets the impression that much of her depth was left on the cutting room floor.

--Dano does a fine job here, especially considering he doesn’t speak for much of the movie.

--Arkin is hysterical as Grandpa, and he’s given a slight, really touching scene with Kinnear inside the Volkswagon.

Far from the requisite “cute kid” she was in “Signs,” Breslin gives one of my favorite child actor performances ever here. You can’t help but fall in love with this girl, and she has a couple scenes that just break your heart. She just feels like a real kid, and I don’t care about the shit I might get for this: 9-year-old Breslin deserves an Oscar nomination.

Lastly, I’ve got to make special mention of Carell. I’ve always loved the guy, but who knew he was capable of this? He’s funny as hell here, but he gives Frank the kind of sadness and humanity that I never could’ve imagined based on “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”

When I recommend the movie to people, they’re relatively unaroused by the plot—“dysfunctional family road trip, eh?” “Kiddie beauty pageant, eh?” But take my word for it, “Sunshine” transcends the seemingly clichéd plot elements and well-worn classifications. And despite some plot elements (and one major set-piece) reminiscent of it, this couldn’t be farther from “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”

With movies like these, it’s always hard to tell to what extent they’re going to catch on, but I hope people turn out in droves for this. I really can’t imagine it not appealing to any demographic. The movie is R-rated, and frankly it should be considering all the profanity and drug use, but barring kids under 13, “Little Miss Sunshine” is perfectly suitable for families (albeit somewhat liberal ones).

When I interviewed “Thank You for Smoking” director Jason Reitman back in February, he told me “Little Miss Sunshine” was “The ‘Sideways’ of this year.” I don’t know if I’d go that far—“Sideways” is a pretty tough act to match—but it certainly has much of what made that film so successful. It’s the rare film that I can promise people they’ll like it.

There’s no way of getting around it—“Little Miss Sunshine” is easily one of the 2 or 3 best movies so far this year, and frankly, I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t make it onto my top 10 list at year’s end. For those who haven’t gotten the picture yet, just fucking go see it.


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