'Little Miss Sunshine' review: Script suffers from severe case of mad crowd-pleasing disease
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.
Reactionary script disguised as progressive tale
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.