A FAMILY ON THE VERGE OF A BREAKDOWN.
When this film, the directors’ first, was shown at the Sundance Festival, it became such a hit that Fox Searchlight chose to pay $10,5 million for the distribution rights. A lot of money, but the movie did go on to earn close to $60 million in the U.S. and $40 million in the rest of the world. It also bagged several Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. Little Miss Sunshine is one of those (originally) independent films that are impressive in many ways… but not a masterpiece just because it was made on the cheap.
The film begins with Sheryl Hoover (Toni Collette) picking up her brother Frank (Steve Carell) from the hospital; the number one Marcel Proust scholar in the nation tried to kill himself after being rejected by one of his male students. Sheryl lets Frank stay in her home even though her plate is full. She’s married to Richard (Greg Kinnear) who’s trying to make money as a life coach. Sheryl has two kids, Dwayne (Paul Dano), an obstinate teenager who’s taken a vow of silence, and seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin). Richard’s father, Edwin (Alan Arkin), has also moved in with the family after being evicted from the retirement home for snorting heroin.
When Olive finds out that she’s qualified for a beauty pageant called “Little Miss Sunshine”, the entire family pack themselves into a Volkswagen Microbus and head to Redondo Beach, California. It becomes an 800-mile road trip fraught with problems, as Richard is about to lose an important deal, Frank runs into the young man who rejected him… and the Volkswagen starts malfunctioning in unexpected ways.
A little too perfect
The film is a little too perfect. It’s supposed to be a fresh piece of art, unlike most stereotypical Hollywood products… but there’s not much of a difference. It is funny, charming, sweet and handles the climactic beauty pageant in a clever way, exposing these types of events as oversexualized, ridiculous affairs. But every character in the Hoover family is a little too manipulated, a little too crazy or cute. You never truly get the sense that they are for real. One reason why the film was so loved however is the cast. When Carell got the part of Frank, the filmmakers had no idea that he would become a major movie star thanks to several other projects at the time; naturally, his presence ended up selling the movie to audiences. Kinnear is excellent as the uptight motivational speaker; Arkin is also worth a look as his father who has simply decided that he has the right at his age to say and do whatever he feels like.
It’s also interesting to watch young Breslin. Her performance in Definitely, Maybe (2008) irritated me a lot, but here she’s impeccable. It’s clearly up to the screenwriters and the director to get a really good performance out of a child actor.
I’m not saying that independent films generally get a better treatment than mainstream movies. But I am saying that this particular film was lauded by some critics in a way that wouldn’t have happened if, say, Ron Howard had made it. And that’s not fair. Entertaining crowd-pleaser it may be, but still inferior to the other Best Picture nominees that year.
Little Miss Sunshine 2006-U.S. 101 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Albert Berger, David T. Friendly, Peter Saraf, Marc Turtletaub, Ron Yerxa. Directed by Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris. Screenplay: Michael Arndt. Cast: Greg Kinnear (Richard Hoover), Toni Collette (Sheryl Hoover), Steve Carell (Frank Ginsberg), Alan Arkin, Abigail Breslin, Paul Dano… Bryan Cranston.
Trivia: Robin Williams and Bill Murray were allegedly considered for the part of Frank.
Oscars: Best Supporting Actor (Arkin), Original Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Supporting Actor (Arkin), Original Screenplay.
Last word: “There really isn’t a protagonist. If there is one it’s Olive, the little girl. Most of the scenes have all six characters in them and that’s what drew us into it. We get to create this sense of a family in an ensemble, and the way they then are able to work together as actors instead of each person separately doing their lines, doing their scene. Each scene you see them, they’re interacting. Those scenes were played in long pieces so that they could really develop at their own rhythm. Maybe that’s why it has a sense of reality because it’s their real timing. It’s not created and stylized. It’s real time pacing.” (Faris, Screen Anarchy)