Monday, February 24, 2014

Little Miss Sunshine

Originally Written and Posted at on 9/4/06 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.

Directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris and written by Michael Arndt, Little Miss Sunshine is the story of a family who go on a road trip to take their young daughter to a beauty pageant as it includes a drug-addicted grandfather, a suicidal gay uncle, and a son who hasn't spoken in months. The film is a unique road film of sorts that explores a family and their dysfunctions as they all deal with setbacks while getting a young girl to a beauty pageant in California. Starring Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, and Alan Arkin. Little Miss Sunshine is a phenomenal film from Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris.

The film is a simple story about a family from Albuquerque, New Mexico who go on a road trip to California that a young girl named Olive (Abigail Breslin) can compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. Yet, not everyone is on board as Olive's father Richard (Greg Kinnear) is trying to score for a book deal for an idea he has as a motivational speaker. Adding to the chaos is Richard's stepson Dwayne (Paul Dano) who hasn't spoken in nine months in a vow of silence as he's obsessed with the work of Nietzsche while Richard's brother-in-law Frank (Steve Carell) is recovering from a suicide attempt due to a break-up with his boyfriend who left him for his rival. It would take Richard's wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) and Richard's father Edwin (Alan Arkin) to rally the family to go on this trip where a lot of major setbacks involving the family ensue. Much of it would play into the idea of failure that is prevalent around them where upon their arrival to California for Olive's pageant, some of the family fear that Olive will endure the same kind of humiliation and devastation they had been through.

Michael Ardnt's script takes it time to explore many of the dysfunction of the family as Edwin is a heroin addict who got kicked out of his retirement home as he would be the one teaching Olive how to dance for the upcoming pageant. Ardnt's approach to the script does have a lot of tropes and conventions that is expected in a road film but adds a lot of layers into the idea that a family might face failure and the whole trip would've been for nothing. Even as characters like Frank and Dwayne are individuals who are on the brink of depression as the latter is hoping to become a pilot by going into this act of silence. Adding to the tension is Richard as he has this theory about being a winner yet his thoughts would rub the family the wrong way as it would play into Olive's insecurities until her grandfather has this great monologue about what being a loser really means and says that Olive is none of those things because at least she's trying. Much of Richard's ideas would be ironic as he would put his own family finances and such into great danger as the third act is about Olive at the pageant. It's a moment in the film where it tests the sense of hopelessness of the family and what they might face as Olive is clearly the underdog against a bunch of young, sexualized girls in the pageant.

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris help create that spontaneity of the road film by adding a lot of situations like a family pushing the van while running after it to get in or the repeated honks of it. They also give each character something to do while dealing with their own situations as when they together, it works. When it comes to the comedy, it's very natural and often deadpan from the likes of Carrell and Dano who play the more miserable personalities dealing with their own situations. Then when the third act comes for the world of young little beauty pageants. It shows a world that can be very discomforting, even with the recent event concerning the Jon Benet murder 10 years ago. Still, Dayton & Faris don't exactly make fun of it nor take it totally serious as they show what it is and how people react to it. Overall, they created a wonderfully funny, heartfelt film that brings in a lot of caring moments and huge laughs.

Helping out Dayton/Faris in their visual presentation is cinematographer Tim Suhrstedt whose color schemes of yellow highlight the American Southwest of its vast deserts while the interiors have some nice, grainy shades of blue as the film is wonderfully shot to convey the vastness of the road. Production designer Kalina Ivanov along with art director Alan E. Muraoka and set decorator Melissa M. Lavender do great job in capturing the realism of the dysfunctional family home while doing a great job on the design of the pageant in all of its cheesy glory. Costume designer Nancy Steiner does great work in presenting the bland clothing of the adults with the exception of Alan Arkin's character while giving Paul Dano some cool t-shirts to wear while the real standout in the clothing goes to Abigail Breslin from the headbands, the boots, and everything including her costume.

Editor Pamela Martin does some great work in the editing playing to the rhythm of a road film with some jump cuts and perspective cutting to convey what the characters feeling while giving time for a specific scene. Sound editor Stephen P. Robinson and mixer Steven Morrow also do great work in conveying the humor of the film, particularly the honking of the van-bus which makes everything funny. Composer Mychael Danna along with the group Devotchka create a whimsical, offbeat score that also includes music by Sulfjan Steven and some beauty pageant music that is cheesy with the exception of an 80s funk classic.

Finally, there's the film's great cast that includes some funny small performances from Geoff Meed as a biker, Dean Norris as a state trooper, Robert J. Connor as the pageant host, Mary Lynn Rajskub as a pageant official, Julio Oscar Mechoso as a mechanic, and the incomparable Beth Grant in a very funny performance as a pageant official. Other notable minor roles from Bryan Cranston as Richard's agent, Stan Grossman and Justin Shilton as Frank's ex-boyfriend Josh are excellent in their brief appearances to convey the problems for the respective characters of Richard and Frank.

Of the main cast, no one conveys the showiness of comedy better than Alan Arkin as the grandfather. Arkin brings all of the troubling and discomforting innuendos of a drug-addict grandfather who says all the wrong things that disturbs the family while being very supportive of Olive as he teaches her to dance as Arkin brings all the right humor. Paul Dano gives probably his best performance to date as the moody Dwayne where in the film's first half, Dano brings a lot of humor with the things he writes in a notepad while not saying anything. When Dano breaks down, he channels a lot of angst while he has great chemistry with Steve Carell.

Steve Carell proves his comedic genius by going into minimalism as he plays a moody, quiet suicidal professor who brings a lot of funny moments by doing so little and not saying much. Carell, like Bill Murray who was considered for the role, proves that showiness doesn't have to be the only way to be funny as Carell brings a lot of depth to a character who is going through a lot of troubles and frustration as its one of his best performances. Greg Kinnear also proves his brilliance as an actor in comedy and drama as a man filled with irony as someone who talks about winning but is really a total loser. Kinnear brings a lot of struggle and depth to a man who tries his best for his family but ends up saying the wrong things and tries to find ways to do right as Kinnear proves himself to be a very versatile actor.

If Dano and Carell brings misery, Arkin brings misogyny, and Kinnear brings a straightforwardness, Toni Collette is the glue that brings everyone together. The Australian actress who knows how to pull off an American accent is great as the maternal figure of the family who tries to get everyone back on their feet while dealing with frustration of their dysfunctions. Collette also shines in being the normal one of the family as she stands out with her comedic talents and drama as she brings out another great performance. If Collette is the glue that keeps the cast together, it's the young Abigail Breslin who is the heart of the movie. Breslin steals the show as the optimistic Olive whose chance to compete for a beauty pageant comes true. Breslin brings a lot of depth to a young girl wanting to have her family on her side despite their dysfunctions while dealing with her own physical features as it's the family that supports her. Breslin is the real breakthrough as she proves her worth in every scene, especially her dance in the competition as she knocks everyone dead.

Little Miss Sunshine is a phenomenal film from Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris as it features a great cast, an amazing script, and strong themes about family. It's a film that is very accessible to families while not being afraid to say crass language and such that is controversial. Yet, it plays true to what families go through and not matter the obstacles they face. They always come together to beat the odds. In the end, Little Miss Sunshine is a tremendous film from Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris.

Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris Films: Ruby Sparks - Battle of the Sexes (2017 film)

© thevoid99 2014


Brittani Burnham said...

Great review! I love Little Miss Sunshine, it was a wonderful little film. I'm glad it got a lot of Oscar love, even if I think Abigal Breslin getting a nomination was a little much. Dano was awesome in this.

ruth said...

I quite enjoyed this one, it's one of the more entertaining film about quirky family dynamics. It's got a great cast too and Abigail Breslin was such a revelation.

thevoid99 said...

@Brittani-I think Abigail's nod was a little much although she was the best child performance that year as the whole cast was great. And Alan Arkin still deserves that Oscar.

@ruth-My mother and my late maternal grandmother LOVE this film. They loved Abigail Breslin as it's one of my mother's all-time favorite movies. I love it as well.

Dell said...

I love this movie, as well. Excellent review. And yeah, Arkin was phenomenal.

thevoid99 said...

@Wendell Ottley-Thank you. And I think Alan Arkin did deserve that Oscar. He was great in that film and that scene he had with Breslin was beautiful.