Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with our own MiraJeff's review of the indie comedy LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. First heard about this flick at Sundance. Steve Carell is the man. Alan Arkin is the man. I'm there. Enjoy MiraJeff's take on it!
Greetings AICN, MiraJeff here with a look at Little Miss Sunshine, the quirky indie comedy from writer Michael Arndt and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. This one’s been coasting on waves of buzz ever since it debuted at Sundance earlier this year but to be perfectly honest, Little Miss Sunshine is probably not the breakthrough it’s being built up to be, although it is probably the most original comedy in years. The writing is funny and mature and the performances are simply stellar all around.
Little Miss Sunshine is a movie that can’t really be described in one neat sentence. Its new tagline goes a long way towards providing a plot synopsis- A family on the verge of a breakdown. There’s patriarch Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear), a Tony Robbins-wannabe without the track record of success. He’s desperate to market his 9-step program for self-improvement but the problem isn’t the idea, it’s him. His wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette) is the least eccentric character and acts as the glue that holds the family together. Her gay, suicidal brother, Frank (Steve Carell) is the world’s leading Proust scholar who comes to live with the family when he’s released from the hospital after trying to kill himself because his boyfriend left him for the 2nd leading Proust scholar. There’s also Richard’s foul-mouthed father (Alan Arkin) who was kicked out of his retirement home for snorting heroin. The Hoover children are a conundrum of their own. Dwayne (Paul Dano) is a Nietzsche-reading disillusioned teenager who has taken a vow of silence until he fulfills his dream of becoming an Air Force pilot. And last but not least is Little Miss Sunshine herself, the adorable Olive (Abigail Breslin), a slightly chubby seven year-old who stares through innocent, naÃ¯ve eyes at the stick-thin women who populate televised beauty pageants, yearning to be one of them.
Little Miss Sunshine is a winner based on the strength of its script and the quality of its performances. Breslin, who started out as Mel Gibson’s daughter in Signs and most recently appeared in the hidden gem Keane, is a wonder to watch. She more than holds her own against the veteran cast and even pulls off the film’s most emotional scene, a beautiful moment where Olive confesses to Grandpa that she’s nervous about performing at the pageant. Dakota Fanning should be on the lookout. Dano, who earned his stripes in L.I.E. and The Girl Next Door, turns in another subtly nuanced, impressive performance. It’s hard enough playing a mute character, but Dano’s deadpan reactions and general demeanor are hilarious. Arkin gets the best lines to work worth and everything out of his mouth is comic gold. Collette has the least to do in the picture and the character kind of fades into the background in the final act, but the rally cry she gives her family in a hospital waiting room is one of the film’s more affecting scenes. Kinnear follows up his great work in The Matador with another solid performance as the household decision-maker who hates losing but inevitably learns to embrace failure. But if there’s one actor who stands out in Little Miss Sunshine it’s Carell, who continues to prove his versatility as the depressed fountain of sarcasm, Uncle Frank. This is a sleeper performance that stands an outside chance of being nominated for Best Supporting Actor come January, if the film’s word-of-mouth gives it legs through summer. There are also some very funny minor characters played by Bryan Cranston, Beth Grant, Wallace Langham, and Mary Lynn Rajskub, in full Chloe mode.
The script is dark but refreshing and Arndt is certainly a writer with something to say, commenting on America’s obsessions with beauty and winning. The direction by Dayton and Faris is light and fun, and the pace never drags during the Hoovers’ laugh-inducing, cringe-worthy road trip. The score by composer Mychael Danna and up-and-coming band Devotchka is glorious if not a bit repetitive. I couldn’t help but think I was listening to the Everything Is Illuminated trailer on repeat. Singer-songwriter Sufjian Stevens also contributes a couple of cool tracks.
So with all these heaps of praise, why isn’t Little Miss Sunshine the breakthrough some critics are hailing it as? Well something about the third act didn’t sit well with me. Once we actually get to the pageant, the movie kind of falters. It doesn’t quite stumble, it just isn’t as funny as what came before it. The big reveal at the pageant (Olive’s performance) felt kind of fake and/or stupid. How can the Hoovers drive hundreds of miles and not once even ask their daughter what she plans on doing for the talent portion of the show? I know there were a million ways the pageant could have gone but I can’t really say I liked what the filmmakers ended up doing with it. To veer into minor spoiler territory, I like that the Hoovers reunite onstage and rediscover their passion for life, dancing and laughing and smiling together, but it all felt too tidy for me. It rang a little false. In fact, I know some of the ending is false because Olive’s act was originally choreographed to a ZZ Top song but there were issues with the rights and the result is that we get Olive shimmying to Rick James’ "Superfreak," which isn’t what I had in mind, but then again, who the hell am I?
That said, I whole-heartedly recommend Little Miss Sunshine because it is a very good movie, just not a great one. There are plenty of laughs and a story full of characters we really, truly care about. It’s unconventional but not the least bit pretentious. Dayton and Faris are veteran music-video directors and judging from their first feature, I’d say they have a long, fruitful career ahead of them. The same goes for Arndt, who I’m sure will have studios hunting him down to write something. The movie isn’t for everyone but art house audiences will eat this up. I know the film had a tough time getting made, but everyone who stuck with this one for the long haul should be proud. It really is an impressive debut for Dayton and Faris and a showcase for all the talented actors involved. I promise it’ll make you laugh in a really uncomfortable but still good way.
That’ll do it for me, folks. I’ve got some very cool screenings coming up for Science of Sleep and 13 Tzameti, as well as reviews of The Descent and The Quiet. Fans and haters, your emails are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. ‘Til then this is MiraJeff, signing off…