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Rodney Loves A Little Miss Sunshine

Published August 14, 2006 in Movie Reviews
By Rodney Hunter | Image property of Fox Searchlight.
Little Miss Sunshine Poster Little Miss Sunshine Poster
With a stellar cast that includes Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell and Alan Arkin, it was not difficult to spend a few bucks out of curiosity to see how they would interact in Little Miss Sunshine. It was money well spent.

Little Miss Sunshine Review

This is the story of a dysfunctional family that is determined to transport their young daughter to the finals of a beauty/talent contest, requiring them to travel cross-country in their old Volkswagen Bus. Sounds like a formula on-the-road comedy, right? But here the writers and directors surprise us with bizarre and unpredictable events and unexpected interactions throughout the trip, allowing us to observe the family members as they struggle with their own flaws in meeting each challenge.

Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear) is the father of this family, which includes his wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette), his teen-aged son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), his young daughter, Olive (Abigail Breslin), his father who they call Grandpa (Alan Arkin) and his brother-in-law, Frank (Steve Carell).The Hoover clan all live together in Richard and Sheryl’s modest home in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The fact that this is not your typical family unit is quickly shown in the film’s early moments. Richard is seen trying unsuccessfully to support his family by promoting a “9 Step” motivational program, one which guarantees that you will be a “winner” and not a “loser.” And he brings this theme to the dinner table and in fact in every conversation that he has with his family. Frank is picked up by Sheryl from a hospital, where his insurance coverage has run out, after attempting suicide due to reverses in his professional and gay life. Dwayne is rebelling from the family by taking a vow of silence (communicating only by memo pad), while focusing on his goal of being an Air Force pilot. Grandpa, having been evicted from a retirement home, is growing older ungracefully, as he relies on heroine addiction to get by, while dispensing advice to his grandson on how to live while young and coaching Olive on her dance routine for the pageant

The vehicle which moves the story along, literally and figuratively, is the family’s old Volkswagen Bus. It turns out that little Olive has the opportunity to compete in the finals of the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty and talent pageant in California, having been runner-up in the local pageant. With the family being in such financial distress, it is agreed that all of the household members will travel in their VW to the pageant. At this point one could expect a story line similar to Chevy Chase’s “Vacation” movie. Fortunately the writer and directors kept the story from being predictable.
We are treated to Grandpa’s heartwarming support of Olive and his crude advice on life to Dwayne; the attempt by Richard to maintain a positive attitude in spite of the obstacles they encounter during the trip (including a mechanical breakdown of the VW); the emotional end of Dwayne’s vow of silence as he discovers he is color blind and thus ineligible to pilot any plane; Sheryl’s total support of her children while protecting them from Frank’s instability, Grandpa’s colorful language, and Richard’s obsession with “winning”; and Olive’s delightful personality and warmth as she comforts her brother, but fears disappointing her father by being a “loser”.

Kinnear’s performance is outstanding and is reminiscent of his Oscar-nominated effort in As Good As it Gets (1997). We feel his painful failure to provide for his family, yet appreciate his never-say-die attitude (again, one of the tenets of his motivational spiel) and support of his daughter as he strives to get her to the California pageant.

Collette provides stability and some common sense to the ensemble as the mother of the clan who tries to keep things together. Her superb performance as the protective mother of Olive reminds me of her role as the mother of the child in Sixth Sense (1999).

Steve Carell pulled off this odd role as Frank beautifully. I am used to seeing Mr. Carell in scenes of hilarious word gags and physical humor that he showed in A 40 Year Old Virgin, or as the weatherman in Will Ferrell’s Anchorman, or as the newsman in Jim Carey’s Bruce Almighty. His subtle treatment of the severe crises of his character was a refreshing change of pace for the actor, who did not try to be silly or overwhelming in any scene. And it was the relationship between Frank and Dwayne that provided the early warmth that the movie promised.

Arkin was well cast as Grandpa, displaying a cantankerous attitude as well as a loving heart that gave the character depth and realism. The scene where Grandpa comforts Olive over her fears of losing provided a heart-rending moment, one of several throughout the film.

Dano’s Dwayne was a difficult role to play. At first it is hard to like the boy; but as I got to know him and his disaffection with other members of the family, I ultimately felt like embracing him. And while I have empathy for the boy as he breaks his vow of silence, I am comforted to hear him speak. Dano’s performance was impressive.

The glue to the story is of course Olive, played beautifully by Breslin. I remember her performance as Bo Hess, the young daughter of Mel Gibson in Signs. But in Sunshine she commands our attention as she interfaces with each character, showing youthful curiosity as well as wisdom. Her scene with Grandpa, the day before the finals of the pageant, where she tearfully expresses fear of being a loser (and disappointing her father), is heartbreaking.

The directors (Jonathan Payton and Valerie Feris) take great care in developing the personalities of each member of the family. My understanding of each character and my fondness for each, flaws and all, become a revelation. Even the kooky finish seems to fit.

This film has laughter and heartache; warmth and empathy. The intelligent writing, directing and casting make this a feel good movie that must be seen.

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Rodney Hunter
Sources: Image property of Fox Searchlight.

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