On the Road with Little Miss Sunshine

little miss sunshine
Family cheer in Little Miss Sunshine

Meet the Hoovers: a family that sucks at least as much as yours, one that puts the “F” in dysfunctional. Richard (Greg Kinnear) and Sheryl (Toni Collette) are parents trying desperately to hang on to their middleclassness in spite of economic reality, and their equilibrium in spite of situational reality. Their story is an emotionally rich, intellectually engaging, and sparklingly funny experience. That’s quite a trick.

Richard has developed a self-help program, and all he needs is a financial backer. The first rule in his nine-step plan is not to think like a loser. The irony is thick, because this family has some very serious problems: Richard’s father, Edwin (Alan Arkin), is addicted to hard drugs and hard porn; Sheryl’s brother, Frank (Steve Carell), is a gay, suicidal Proust scholar; son Dwayne (Paul Dano), from her first marriage, reads Nietzsche and refuses to speak; daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin), from this marriage, is a chubby pre-teen who loves to dance. And Sheryl is just trying to get dinner on the table while frantically treading water in the middle of this pool. In a hyped-up reenactment of what happens in countless homes during the late afternoon, Sheryl is a kind of Every Mother, the hub of all things, pouring beverages, calling down the stairs, and functioning under a barrage of complaints, questions, arguments, and pleas from all three generations living under her roof. All signs indicate that these people are doomed. But they have one thing and one thing only in their favor: they are a family.


Alas, to be gay and Proustian: Steve Carell in Little Miss Sunshine.

By the time dinner is over, Olive discovers she is a finalist in the “Little Miss Sunshine” pageant in California. She had entered the preliminary stages of the competition while visiting relatives there, but the Hoovers live in New Mexico. Sheryl’s car seats only two and it has an automatic transmission. The family van is a stick shift, so Richard has to drive. Since they have very little ready cash, suicidal Frank cannot be left alone, and as Grandpa has been evicted from the retirement home, there is no alternative: all six of them have to go. The journey metaphor serves this road movie well, particularly because these six are kept in such close proximity that the story progresses like a traveling encounter group. Newcomer Michael Arndt’s screenplay crams as many issues as possible into that van–a van that deserves an acting credit, it is that necessary and hilarious a character–and wisely does not pretend or even attempt to resolve any of them. They just are, that’s all–drug addiction, homosexuality, blended families, body image, and more. While they are palpable presences, their treatment is not heavy-handed. Arndt is not out to moralize on any of these [issues] so much as he is offering a meditation on that fluid and shaky thing called family.

The movie works because this ensemble cast embraces the absurdity of family life, from Proust to pornography. Little Miss Sunshine is an assemblage of moments, many with individual characters at the centre of an episode, but always surrounded by the rest of the family, which is Arndt’s point. Among the episodes is a nicely managed breakfast scene, the group tightly seated in a truck-stop booth to emphasize their symbiotic interdependence, where ice cream (that favorite of family treats) provides an opportunity for commentary on positive body image for little girls. After all, remember: the destination of this road trip is a child beauty pageant. Along the way, Olive faithfully practices her talent routine, and Grandpa dispenses some R-rated advice, advice of the sort many people undoubtedly wish they had heard in their youthful prime. Richard has a painfully funny turn as Don Quixote on a motorbike, sputtering down the freeway to do battle with his own private windmill, hoping in the face of reality, trying to change his fate. He is a real human being here, not an idealized and glamorized construction. He just hopes. He keeps trying. He stirs empathy in the hearts of all the resistant failures watching him.

The stand-out performance in this collaborative effort comes from Paul Dano, whose speechless Dwayne is heartbreakingly appealing. He has to act with his face, which he does with subtle skill, most revealingly when he overhears through motel walls an argument between his mother and stepfather. And when he is stunned into speech by the sudden loss of his dream, the performance provides a cathartic moment worthy of Greek tragedy. But not long after, there is a farcical hospital scene that would satisfy the French. The journey climaxes with an extraordinary talent competition at “Little Miss Sunshine,” Arndt’s opportunity to show what it is that makes the difference between succeeding or failing as a family. The Hoovers have worked together on this journey, and in fact they quite literally could not have succeeded without the combined efforts of each member of the family cooperative. This is a kind of success story: life is a ride, even if sometimes the doors fall off your ride.

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