Little Miss Sunshine, Sept. 06


Bad timing: While the JonBenet Ramsey case explodes back into the media, here’s a feature film about a young girl entering a beauty contest—which sometimes makes it harder to laugh.

Little Miss Sunshine contains a VW busload of Hoover family members, reminiscent of the 1983 road comedy Vacation. Instead of parody, Sunshine’s characters are boldly flawed. And in the spirit of The Royal Tenenbaums, the film flaunts their dysfunction with pride. This is a worthy comedy style, but for my money there are too many crazy people in one bus.

But the film has plenty going for it. And here’s the family roster: A “Refuse To Lose” motivational wannabe Dad (Greg Kinnear), who does not allow losers in his family even though he might be one; Mom (Toni Collette), who is tired of her delusional husband; Mom’s gay scholarly brother (Steve Carell), who just failed at attempting suicide; a cantankerous porn-loving heroin-snorting grandpa (Alan Arkin), who coaches his adoring granddaughter for the contest; a creepy son (Paul Dano), who’s keeping a long vow of silence until he fulfills his dream of flying, who gets my vote for the illegalization of teenagers. And then there’s Olive (Abigail Breslin), an unlikely beauty candidate with oversized specs and a potbelly, but a gentle child who believes in Heaven—and the only ray of sunshine on the bus.

The family drives Olive from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach to the Little Miss Sunshine competition. Wait, don’t tell me, stuff goes wrong? Yes, poop happens, in spades. Some mishaps push too hard, some made me laugh out loud. To the credit of this golden cast, the acting is about as fine as the characters are kooky. How can you go wrong with Kinnear, Collette, and Arkin? And there are stark moments where instead of the mandatory flow of snappy sound-bytes, the rhythm dies and you can almost hear the thud. Just like in real life.

The interesting conundrum is that screenwriter Michael Arndt does not draw with straight lines. Life in the yellow van bulges with problems and insinuations but the story delivers a pensive midair suspension, where you get to draw your own conclusions. About family, for example, which can be a curse or a blessing. Or both. B