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Little Miss Sunshine   A-

Fox Searchlight Pictures / Big Beach

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Writer: Michael Arndt
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, Alan Arkin.

Review by Rob Vaux

There's a moment in every family road trip -- the kind where too many people are packed into too little space to travel too far a distance for the sake of some nebulous but inescapable clan purpose -- when you realize you could actually kill your nearest and dearest. And not in a syrupy, teasing, "we kid because we care" way either. I mean you could seriously strangle the lot of them and bury them in the desert where they would never be found. It's a chilling realization, and the sincerity of it belies most so-called "family dysfunction" films, which ultimately seek to uphold the very notions of togetherness rejected by that black homicidal desire. Little Miss Sunshine is a wonderfully tart exception to the rule. It acknowledges how deeply we sometimes hate our loved ones -- and pulls no punches in its comedic depiction -- yet retains a deep and unblemished sympathy for its subjects that prevents it from sliding into cynicism.

Hollywood used to make movies of its sort quite often, back when performance was more economically feasible than spectacle. Now, it's relegated to the so-called indie scene, which has become a reliable bastion for funky human comedies. Little Miss Sunshine feels a little late to that party, following the trail already blazed by the likes of Sideways and Napoleon Dynamite. And yet it is arguably the funniest of the lot, both in terms of flat-out belly laughs and in the sincerity of its social critique. Its characters, comprising the New Mexico-based Hoover family, all possess typically oddball quirks, and yet the fine cast breathes life into them far beyond their one-line premises. At their heart is the uniquely American notion that finishing first is all that matters; each member of the family has a different way of expressing it, and of hiding from the unpleasant fact that they may not be the champions they pretend to be.

The purest is seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin), with a fixation on beauty pageants and the seeds of a serious eating disorder planted by her well-meaning kin. Her older brother Dwayne (Paul Dano) has embraced Nietzsche as a spiritual guru and masks his exasperation behind a permanent vow of silence. Family father Richard (Greg Kinnear) hustles a nine-step program to empty auditoriums, claiming to have the secret of winning for any loser desperate enough to believe him. His wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) refuses to shield anyone from life's harsh edges, while her wounded brother Frank (Steve Carell) has attempted suicide after losing his lover to a more successful rival, and now must be constantly monitored lest he try it again. The only one with a handle on life (of a sort) is Grandpa (Alan Arkin), who has surrendered his autumn years to heroin and cheap porn, but still has the good sense to let Olive know that he loves her.

Scarcely have directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris introduced us to these misfits when they are packed into a VW microbus and sent to California, where a technicality has landed Olive a spot in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. The bulk of the film is occupied by the pressure cooker of the road, as the six slowly begin digging their claws into each other, and their various fears and failures come scuttling out of the shadows. As a comedy, its arc is very typical, but Michael Arndt's firecracker script infuses every incident with such barbed, delicious wit that the predictable structure soon fades into the background. In its place is a sextet of terrific performances (including Breslin, who bears close watching) that ricochet off each other in prefect synchronicity. The Hoovers' pain is unblemished and deeply real, which makes the humor all the sharper when Dayton and Faris steadfastly refuse to throw them any lifelines.

Indeed, their increasingly single-minded efforts to reach the competition become a joke in and of itself, whose punch line announces itself in the final 20 minutes. Skewering the fish-in-a-barrel target of preteen beauty pageants is easy enough, but Little Miss Sunshine takes it to another level by thrusting the all-too-ordinary Hoovers -- whose flaws and foibles have slowly endeared them to us -- straight through a very creepy JonBenet Ramsey looking glass. The results are so brilliantly, hysterically perfect that the graceful message beneath it hardly registers: we're laughing so hard we've literally stopped breathing.

That trick recurs too many times to count in the 90 minutes preceding it. Little Miss Sunshine wraps its axioms in satire of the sharpest sort, aimed at anyone who's ever dealt with a troublesome relation, or who ever had a dream that didn't pan out. The lessons are so simple, and yet they take so much pain to understand: the kind of pain that only those closest to us can inflict. This beautiful comedy -- easily the best of the year -- knows the hysterical heartbreak of that truth. It knows that we've all been locked in that car at one time or another, that at the end of the day it's really for the best... and that it's all going to hurt like hell anyway.

Review published 07.24.2006.

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