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'Little Miss Sunshine' Review: Indie Family Comedy Suffers from 'Mainstream Disease'

Little Miss Sunshine movie Greg Kinnear Toni Collette Alan Arkin Steve Carell'Little Miss Sunshine' movie review: Script suffers from severe case of 'mainstream disease' (image: Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin, Abigail Breslin, Toni Collette in 'Little Miss Sunshine')

Much more often than not, “independent film” merely indicates that an American production received its financing from sources outside – or somewhere in the outskirts of – the Hollywood studio system. Only sporadically does that label refer to edgy, challenging, and/or unconventional filmmaking.

In fact, “independent filmmakers” usually concoct storylines as conventional as those being churned out by the studios, probably in the hopes of selling their screenplays (or finished films) to a major distributor. Considering the amount of money involved, who can blame them? All they need is to wrap their films' cliché-ridden core with the flimsiest veneer of quirkiness – always a good selling point to young audiences, film critics, and Oscar voters.

Those “independently created” stories and characters don't challenge anyone's beliefs or prejudices; they only pretend to do so while subtly – or not so subtly – reaffirming the status quo. Audiences can then pat themselves on the back for having enjoyed something “artsy” even though they've actually been fed nothing more than a less expensive brand of the same pap big Hollywood studios give them on a regular basis. The Fox Searchlight release Little Miss Sunshine is a case in point.

'Little Miss Sunshine': The movies' latest loving family

Directed by husband-and-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, music video directors making their feature-film debut, from a screenplay by Michael Arndt, Little Miss Sunshine proves once and for all that loving families can come in all sizes, shapes, and VW vans.

In case you're wondering, “Have I seen this before?” Well, except for the VW van bit, you most probably have. From My Man Godfrey, You Can't Take It with You, and The Young in Heart to About a Boy, The Family Stone, and Transamerica, unusual – but ever-loving – families have been a film staple for decades.

Sometimes those family films work because their characters are not only unusual, but they are also masters of their fate. They don't go down on their knees begging for our sympathy. Much more often than not, however, those family films don't work because their characters want to be loved by me, you, and everybody else. “Please, love me!” they plead. “I may look and sound different, but at heart I'm just like you!"

In varying degrees, the love-me-I-beg-you approach is taken by the assorted components of Little Miss Sunshine's family who sets out from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Los Angeles so the little daughter can take part in a beauty pageant.

'Little Miss Sunshine': Script promises challenges, but opts for safety instead

In Little Miss Sunshine, Daddy Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear) is a success-obsessed professional failure, but he's also kind-hearted and has a killer smile – so all's forgiven. Mommy Sheryl Hoover (Toni Collette) is a little angry, perhaps, but she overflows with love for her brood. Teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano) is a silent Nietzschean freak who pretends to hate everybody but who's actually a softie at heart. The little beauty-queen wannabe, Olive (Abigail Breslin), wears glasses and has a (fake) tummy, but she is so goddamned Shirley Temple-nishly cute while eating chocolate ice cream that one can't help but feel like squeezing her until she suffocates. And Grandpa Edwin Hoover (Alan Arkin) is loud, tactless, and a heroin addict to boot, but he is gramps – so, while sober, he gives bits of life-affirming advice to his granddaughter.

Ah! Little Miss Sunshine also features Uncle Frank (Steve Carell). True, he's gay, suicidal, and an intellectual (a Proust scholar, no less), but not to worry: he's also sexless and a total wimp. No red-blooded heterosexual male, whether in the film or in the audience, has any reason to feel threatened by him.

And off they go to sunny California. Along the way, family members face terrible hardships ranging from color blindness and a stuck horn to sudden death and a bad carburetor.

In the hands of inexperienced film directors Dayton and Faris, Little Miss Sunshine's dramatic sequences almost invariably fall into the trap of melodrama while most of the humorous moments feel mechanical and calculated. That said, first-time screenwriter Michael Arndt bears the brunt of the blame for the insipid final product. Either that, or Little Miss Sunshine's many producers and/or the folks at Focus Features – the company was involved with the project at one point – messed up Arndt's writing. After all, even the script's jabs at the American obsession with “winning” and at beauty pageants for little girls, dressed like a cross between country Western singers and Sunset Boulevard streetwalkers, are as pointed as half-baked nudges.

Little Miss Sunshine Olive Abigrail Breslin'Little Miss Sunshine': Reactionary script disguised as progressive tale (image: Abigail Breslin as Olive in 'Little Miss Sunshine')

Apart from two funny bits – when Alan Arkin's Gramps exclaims, “At my age, you'd be crazy not to [snort heroin]!” and when Abigail Breslin's Olive, who had been coached by Gramps, performs a quite risqué striptease during her beauty-pageant moment of glory – everything in Little Miss Sunshine that could have been even slightly edgy (or subversive, if you wish) is watered down to be made as conventional and inoffensive as possible.

At the industry screening where I saw the film, Gramps got a big laugh when he told his adolescent grandson Dwayne that he should fuck as many women as possible before settling down. Gee whiz, shocking! Now, imagine how many laughs Gramps would have gotten – or how sympathetic his heroin-addicted character would have seemed to mainstream audiences – had he also told his pre-teen granddaughter Olive to fuck as many guys as possible before settling down. (It may sound odd, but heroin addicts have been known to do and say a number of socially unacceptable things.)

Even Olive's aforementioned striptease is shamelessly softened by an outburst of familial love that feels as phony as it is clumsy – besides being a rip-off from a pivotal scene in Paul Weitz and Chris Weitz' About a Boy, which coincidentally also stars Toni Collette. See, those people may be “different” – losers all, including Olive at this point – but we must care for them because they truly, madly, deeply love one another. And isn't that exactly the way it is with every single family the world over?

'Little Miss Sunshine' cast: Capable actors battle insufferable script

The fact that Greg Kinnear manages to deliver a thoroughly believable performance as Little Miss Sunshine's befuddled Hoover patriarch is a testament to that underused actor's talent. Paul Dano is equally good as the (silent) angry young Dwayne whose means of communication are scattered pieces of paper. Alan Arkin – his sensitive deaf-mute in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter remains one of my all-time favorite performances – might have been funnier had the veteran actor been given truly outrageous lines, but even the heroin-addicted Gramps comes across as more than a little mushy. Steve Carell, for his part, makes an honorable attempt to turn his Uncle Frank into a human being, but he's painfully defeated by the script.

'Little Miss Sunshine': Narrow-minded clichés under the guise of open-minded compassion

Much like the gay character (coincidentally played by Greg Kinnear) in another well-received and highly popular film – James L. Brooks' 1997 big-studio comedy As Good as It Gets – Uncle Frank is the perfect example of emasculated manhood, apparently the only type of “sympathetic” gay man (apart from total sissies) acceptable to mainstream American audiences. To say that such neutered characters are condescending – “Don't hate me. I may be gay, but I'm both asexual and unhappy” – would be an understatement.

Like Kinnear's As Good as It Gets gay amoeba, who can't think of a response to Jack Nicholson's character after being referred to as a “fag” – a line that got a big laugh back then – Carell's Uncle Frank quietly accepts Gramps' suggestion that he buy himself a “fag rag” at a road stop. That line, by the way, also got a big laugh at the industry screening, something that made me wonder: Would those same people have laughed had Frank been Jewish and had Gramps told him to go buy himself a “kike rag”? What if Frank had been black, and Gramps had said, “Buy yourself a 'nigger rag'”? Would that have been funny hah-hah or what? In those two cases, would Gramps have been perceived as merely you-so-funny “politically incorrect,” or would he have come across as a bigoted asshole?

Either way, despite his intermittent mushiness I found Gramps infinitely more appealing than Uncle Frank. In fact, throughout Little Miss Sunshine I kept wondering why no one in such a loving family was kind enough to give the poor suicidal Uncle a pair of scissors – hell, a sharp razorblade would have worked – to help take that most spineless of gay men out of his misery. But since this is Little Miss Sunshine, Frank not only lives but also discovers he belongs to a Family.

After Little Miss Sunshine was over – a family that loses together, stays together – the audience applauded enthusiastically. I left the theater praying for thunderstorms.

Note: A version of this Little Miss Sunshine movie review was initially posted in September 2006.

Little Miss Sunshine (2006). Dir.: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Scr.: Michael Arndt. Cast: Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Abigail Breslin, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano, Bryan Cranston, Paula Newsome, Dean Norris.

Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine photo: Fox Searchlight.

Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin, Abigail Breslin, Toni Collette Little Miss Sunshine photo: Fox Searchlight.


         
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7 Comments to 'Little Miss Sunshine' Review: Indie Family Comedy Suffers from 'Mainstream Disease'

  1. Andre

    You continue to misread my review.

    I never said Alan Arkin's character *should* have called Steve Carell's character something anti-Jewish or anti-black or “more shocking” than the quite socially acceptable slur “fag.” The obvious point I make is that *had he done so* NO ONE would have laughed. The “fag rag” line is in the movie for laughs. That's the only reason it's there. Ugly. Vile. Both on the part of the filmmakers and on the part of those who find it humorous.

    I didn't despise Carell's character because he's a “coward,” as you put it. In fact, I didn't see him as such. I saw him as an amoeba. I don't care for human-looking amoebas, male or female or hermaphrodite, gay or straight or anything in between. In other words, gay male characters don't have to be portrayed as heroes for me to like them. That would be going to the other extreme — as you point out. That would also have turned “Little Miss Sunshine” into a box-office disappointment, sort of like “Milk.” Whether at the movies or in life, most mainstream audiences either want their gay characters invisible — not there — or played as spineless morons for laughs. Like Carell's bereaved Uncle Amoeba.

    By remarking that “Little Miss Sunshine” plays it safe doesn't mean I wanted Dayton and Faris to have Gramps graphically abusing his granddaughter or blowing up the VW van and killing everyone on board, with blood and torn limbs everywhere, or shooting up at the dinner table and then vomiting in his minestrone soup. An edgy film isn't necessarily a shocking film.

    But considering the subject matter and the film's “dysfunctional” characters, all I wanted was a pointed critique of both families and society in general. *That* “Little Miss Sunshine” doesn't deliver. In fact, it takes the safest route so as to make both plot and characters as unchallenging as possible.

  2. adifferenttake

    I'm right with you on how vile, rude and insulting those words are. But it would have served no purpose whatsoever if gramps had said those instead of “faggot”.

    I shared an apartment for a year with a man who is gay (and now, incidentally, is married to a bisexual woman) and I fully appreciate the pejorative use of “faggot”. What your review seems to say is that it would have been edgier, more authentic as a movie and a script if it had had gramps use another more socially unacceptable term. The fact that “faggot” is somewhat socially acceptable does not make it right but shows the insensitivity of the general public. But your review does not help the problem but makes it worse because you want the truly independent films to push the boundaries a little more so that people can be shocked, instead of laughing at something they ought to have been ashamed at.

    The only thing I like about your review is that you state plainly your allegiance to a “no limits”, a thoroughly unrestrained, and movie industry. Your take on the spineless gay uncle may be slightly accurate (insofar as his character is as shallow as your own perspective) but it seems that it's difficult to portray any male character these days to anyone's satisfaction. Gay or not. The thing is, you want a strong gay character in a movie that shows a coward. In reality there are many straight men who are as cowardly as Frank in movies and out, but I suspect you wouldn't find that to be a problem. Now we have Milk, which shows a strong gay character, and look at the reviews it got! Besides receiving many nominations and awards (which it richly deserved) there are many people SO upset because it makes a gay man an admirable hero. So again, I ask: what good would it have done had gramps said anything else? And, what would it have achieved had Frank been less spineless? Cannot a gay man go through grief the same as a straight man? I think you reviewed this movie, and a few others, with a thick cowl over
    your eyes - a deficient worldview. And I don't think it is so illogical.

    Your perspective on this movie and some others shows that you hold an opinion which inhabits one extreme in society: an unrestrained, no-taboo, no need for self-control, post-modernism. If you want to see the OPPOSITE perspective to yours (which in many ways is just as bad) then watch - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0rxlBc7.

    Also, don't you think the point of the movie was to critique general American society, such as the rather apparent vulgarity of the Little Miss Sunschine beauty pageant? You didn't even mention that or seem to notice that the film moved towards that pageant, and used an extremely awkward and inappropriate routine to point out how subtly the whole pageant was inappropriately derogatory to the participants and their parents? To me, I think that was the whole point of the movie. To show a family that, although it is incredibly dysfunctional and full of odd-ball characters, it is better than the families who, out of a serious desire to win at all costs, put their daughters into the pageant as almost little pole-dancers, miniature whores. -> Obviously that is strong language -> The other participants' dresses and routines were exposed to be vulgar by the very extreme vulgarity of Breslin's routine.

    I say “good work”, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

  3. Andre

    My worldview is “pedantic” because it doesn't match yours. That's how it usually goes.
    Also, I'm sure you'll find a number of movies that won Oscars for best screenplay that you find subpar or downright trashy.
    But then you wouldn't be the “pedantic” one. The *Academy* would be wrong. That's how it usually goes.

    I see no difference between “faggot,” “kike,” or “nigger.” All three are nasty, ugly, vile words, used to offend, to hurt, to demean others.
    Apparently you think “faggot” is just fine. The audience with whom I saw “Little Miss Sunshine” surely did, as they laughed in a way they'd never have laughed had the anti-black or anti-Jew slur been used for comic effect.
    People like you would only change your minds if you were gay and someone called *you* a faggot.
    Trust me, then my remarks wouldn't sound at all “insipid.” My review would also sound quite “logical.”

    By the way, I watched “Little Miss Sunshine” at the Writers Guild. Some of those people laughing at “faggot” jokes were quite possibly among those who chose “Little Miss Sunshine” the best written movie of the year.

    And finally, there are hundreds of movies about families that I like — or even admire. Just because I didn't like “Little Miss Sunshine” doesn't mean I don't like movies about families, period.
    Now, *that* is an illogical extrapolation.

    Thanks for writing.

  4. adifferenttake

    I don't like this review. I appreciated the attempt to create a family that is messed - kinda like most families - but it didn't come off as phony to me. I'm writing a thesis on the history of family, and what the family unit has meant over the last three millenia, how it changed and where it is going. As far as I can tell, LMS made an honest jab at the relative dysfunctionality of the typical family.

    Your review seems predicated on the assumption that a film about a family already begins at the wrong place (who crafts art around an archaic form of society?), and can hardly get better if it had less phony characters, and less insipid writing. But why then did LMS earn the Best Original Screenplay? What are you missing in your pedantic worldview that the judges of the Oscars deemed worthy of an award?

    Also, why would gramps tell his grandson to go buy a “kike rag”? What would that do for the film? And what is the point that the filmmakers would make if, instead of that socially unacceptable comment, he commanded an even more socially reprehensible thing like buying a “nigger-rag”? How would that make the film less phony?

    In the end, it is your kind of review that makes me sick of reading film reviews. It isn't even logical. And it is your own insipid perspective on the gay uncle that inhibits people's slowly developing attitude towards an inclusive family. And yet you didn't even seem aware of the pejorative social and familial implications of several of those scenes.

    I wouldn't watch that movie again, either. But for entirely different reasons.

  5. Andre

    Matt,

    If you look at my list of favorite films, you'll see quite a few that could hardly be considered “world-weary jaded.” (And I never say in my review that people should only go to the movies to be challenged.)

    My chief problem with “Little Miss Sunshine” wasn't that it lacked Dreyer's starkness, Bergman's psychology, or Antonioni's sense of ennui. As far as I'm concerned, “Little Miss Sunshine” fails because it pretends to be something it isn't. It's phony.

    As to your question about my getting upset if others find my writing “predictable,” the answer is, No, that doesn't upset me.

    Now, the two hours of my life I wasted watching “Little Miss Sunshine.” Well, *that* made me mad…

    But hey, thanks for sharing your opinion. I'm sure most people will agree with you — not with me. (I'll grant you that.)

  6. Matt

    Andre

    I read your review of Little Miss Sunshine (only recently released in Australia). You are the sort of film reviewer that I have become accustomed to in my reading of 1001 films … The choice of favourite films is calculated to tell us about the reviewer not the film. Your review sits nicely in this genre - does that upset you that your writing is predictable?

    I am someone who deals daily with the tragedy of the lives of others. They don't need to go to the cinema to be “challenged” or to be 'cutting edge'. I have enough 'profound' or intellectual dialogue with my friends and family to not require it of every piece of entertainment I view. LMS was entertaining and engaging. I liked the characters - rather than this tired world-weary jaded artist view of the world that you obviously prefer.

    As an Australian I frequently object to the neo-colonial American mass media. But LMS is not part of the problem. The only moment I was reminded of the origin of this movie was during the family dance sequence at the end (I will grant you that).

    Matt

  7. Allan Ellenberger

    It was suggested to me by several friends that I see this film. They all agreed that it was hysterical and the funniest film they had seen in a long time. While I wasn't disappointed, I did not think it was “hysterical.” In fact, there was only one time that I or the audience I saw it with, actually laughed out loud. That was when the emcee of the talent contest asked Olive where her grandfather was and she replied, “In the trunk of our car.” The film was well-written and all the performances were excellent. Toni Collette and the actors playing the morose Duane and little Olive stand out.