The Theory of Chaos

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - Little Miss Sunshine

Full review behind the jump

Little Miss Sunshine

: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Feris
: Michael Arndt
: Albert Berger, David T. Friendly, Peter Sarif, Marc Turteltaub, Ron Yerxa
: Abigail Breslin, Greg Kinnear, Paul Dano, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Alan Arkin

A lesser movie than
Little Miss Sunshine would not have trusted its characters as themselves to win our affections. It would have fashioned a narrative to contort them into some form which better resembled trouble-free happiness – because it would not see how it could be possible they could be happy being so flawed. This is because a lesser movie would not have so treasured their troubles, would not have realized that their suffering – their bizarre, divine suffering – would be the key to our understanding and loving them.

That’s the core idea in Michael Arndt’s poisoned pip of a screenplay, and there are so many ways it might have been loused up on the way to the screen, but the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Feris, making their feature-directing debut after a long commercial and music video career, arrows straight to the truth – that misery loves company, and in this context, families make the best company of all. Their potent realization of the story’s tone, and deft juggling of a flawless ensemble of actors, allow an excellent piece of writing to fulfill its charming potential. You will be surprised, after all you have endured with this family, at how happy you are by the end.

This family is a chamber orchestra of damaged psyches – a sextet of self-pitying virtuosos who somehow come to finally notice what music they make together. Mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) has been brought to the teetering brink by the realization that keeping a roof over one’s head and putting food on the table every night is both an overwhelming job and not enough to please anyone. Grandpa (Alan Arkin) has decided to spend his final days in this life waging a scorched-earth campaign against good manners, and has taken up snorting heroin, to boot. Teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence, which he says has something to do with getting into the Air Force Academy, but I think stems from him realizing that communicating with his family by notepad demonstrates much more contempt than regular talking.

Sheryl’s brother Frank (a magnificently low-tempo Steve Carrell) is a Proust scholar who has just attempted suicide after his young grad student lover left him for a lesser Proust scholar. And then there’s the father of the brood, Richard (Greg Kinnear), who is trying desperately to hammer all of life’s problems into a shape that can be addressed by his new 9-Step self-help program that no one wants to hear or read about.

A lesser movie would have been satisfied to mock Richard’s ambitions to guru fame and fortune, it would not have allowed him to apply his own lessons to the problems of his family, and prove his worth in the process. It would not have seen the opportunity to believe in one man’s ability to not give up, especially a man like Richard. And so Richard, as acted with selfless commitment by Kinnear, evolves from pathetic clown to something much better as he tries against all possible odds to get his daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) to a beauty pageant.

Olive is one of those children who seems to have developed an early self-reliance as a courtesy to those around her. She’s comfortable in her own world, and although she has big round glasses and a healthy little belly, her world includes a love for the ritual of child beauty pageants and she’s happy to pursue it in her way. She was the runner-up in a regional final, and some subsequent scandal has thrust her into the role of contestant in the fiercely-competitive Little Miss Sunshine pageant 600 miles away in California. And so because Dwayne is too young to be left alone, and Frank too suicidal, and Sheryl can’t drive a stick, and Grandpa’s been choreographing Olive’s dance routine with her in secret, the whole family piles into a Volkswagon van that looks ready to fall into pieces if anyone shifts their body too violently.

And on the road the pleasures are in the smallest details. That ghastly attempt at a smile Frank gives when someone in a convenience store asks how he’s doing. Grandpa’s descriptions of his tomcat success in a rehab facility. Paul Dano’s ability to communicate volumes of emotion through the inscrutable face and sullen body language of the teenage boy. The minute choices of language and tactic made by mother and father in a diner when a bowl of ice cream suddenly becomes a battlefield in the War of How to Raise Their Daughter. This is a family that is going to experience all manner of disasters in their little van, and heroically determines not to let any of it stop them from getting on each others’ nerves.

Why does that look so much more like real love than the plastic wholesomeness we see at church on Sunday? I think it’s because actions speak louder than words, or haircuts, or nice sweaters. The family in Little Miss Sunshine is messy, and out of fashion, and rude, but they all want little Olive to have what she wants, and what they are willing to do to give it to her is beyond heartwarming. She recognizes all of it, it’s certain. When you get to the pageant, itself a merciless surgery on that whole unseemly culture, you realize there’s actually some truth behind Richard’s philosophy about what makes a winner a winner, even if the winner isn’t always the one who wins, so to speak. And that the happiest family isn’t the one with the most happiness. What a warm and wicked delight this movie is.


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