God, those titles are getting worse, aren’t they? Nevertheless, welcome to day four of our Oscar movie marathon of reviews here at moviegasm. Today we’re going to talk about the underdog indie comedy Little Miss Sunshine, which many regard as the frontrunner for Best Picture. Obviously, I don’t, this only being day four and all, but this is still a very good movie that’s well positioned for a come-from-behind win, which would be apt given the content of the film.I liked Little Miss Sunshine. It’s a hard movie to not like, with a host of great performances by wonderful actors, a wonderful original screenplay, and a quirky vibe that maintains a confident sense of itself. That last bit sounds a little… flowery, I know, but what I mean is that a movie like this is a really delicate balancing act. Everybody involved in the cast and crew has to buy into this strange little world it creates without a hint of irony or it doesn’t work (In that way it reminds of last year’s indie darling, Napoleon Dynamite). Fortunately, everyone does, and for the most part the movie really works.
Michael Arndt’s screenplay quickly introduces us to a typically unique American family: father Richard (Greg Kinnear), who’s trying in vain to sell a self-help program called ‘The Nine Steps’; mother Sheryl (Toni Collette), who manages the household while hovering on the edge of a breakdown; Grandpa (Alan Arkin), a dirty old man who has decided to explore the pleasures of snorting heroin in his old age; Sheryl’s brother, Frank (Steve Carell), a Proust scholar who recently attempted suicide after being left by a lover; Richard and Sheryl’s son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), a morbid teenager with a Nietzsche fetish who has taken a vow of silence; and finally their youngest daughter, Olive (Abigail Breslin), who dreams of winning a beauty pageant in spite of clunky glasses and a less-than-athletic build.
I have to point out that the movie actually introduces everyone much more succinctly than I have just now, and in spite of all the characters and a virtual tsunami of ‘quirkiness’, everything moves along at a pretty good clip. We soon learn that Olive has a chance to compete in something called the Little Miss Sunshine competition, and for a host of reasons the only way to get her there is for everyone to go on a road trip to California in a VW van that has more mechanical issues than the Millenium Falcon. By introducing such a multitude of characters, each with one basic problem, there is a predictability to the unfolding of events that follows. When will Dwayne finally speak? When will Frank confront his former lover? When will heroin get Grandpa into trouble (there is a sentence I never thought I’d type…)? And sure enough, as this motley crew encounters one catastrophy after another, each actor gets a little moment to shine.
The predictability is saved by the amazing ensemble cast. Greg Kinnear has seemed a little lost since As Good as it Gets, but with recent performances in The Matador (a good little movie, if you haven’t seen it, with a great turn by Pierce Brosnan.), Invincible, and now this, I think he’s gotten back on track. His Richard is trying hard to be the father he imagines he should be, all the while terrified that he doesn’t have what it takes to support his family. Toni Collette just seems to get better and better, and between About a Boy and Sunshine she’s shown herself to have a deft sense of comic timing, provided the right underlying pathos. And Steve Carell has just done everything right since leaving The Daily Show. Arkin got the Oscar nomination, but it just as easily could have been him for his blisteringly cynical Frank. He’s already an Emmys and Golden Globe nominee for The Office (which he has wisely stuck with in spite of his burgeoning film career), and when Evan Almighty catapults him to real stardom, his own nomination won’t be far behind.
Just for fun, watch Sunshine, then watch Wait Until Dark and take a second to appreciate how great Alan Arkin really is. That any one actor could be so sly and funny in one film and so unbelievably menacing in another is hard to believe, even separated by so many years. Paul Dano does more with the silent Dwayne than I would have thought possible, although at the end of the day he’s still just an angsty teenager coming to grips with the world.
And then, of course, there’s Abigail Breslin, the film’s other acting nominee. I’d like to point out that this little girl was actually discovered my M. Night Shyamalan, and gives a stunningly good performance in Signs. Whatever else you think about Night, the guy has a knack for finding good child actors and eliciting good performances out of them. But Signs is nothing compared to her work in Sunshine. Though she has much less screen time, the film hangs on her performance as much as The Queen hangs on Helen Mirren’s; we have to believe that each of these family members would put their personal squabbles aside just to make this girl smile. We do, and that is what makes its characters sympathetic and the film so heartfelt.
This is the debut film of husband-and-wife directors (not a phrase you hear much, is it? Why is it that it’s always siblings- the Ferrely brothers, the Hughes brothers, the Pang brothers- but never spouses? Just a thought.) Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and they do a wonderful job of balancing humor and pathos, and technically prove themselves quite adept. In particular, there are some shots of the family van passing under criss-crossing overpasses that are elegantly composed, and the shot when Dwayne finally speaks- or screams- is beautiful, especially a moment later when little Olive goes down to comfort him. The two are at the bottom of a hill beside the road, with Dwayne on the right in the foreground, Olive next to him, and the finally lined up on the road above, to the left. At first the family is obscured, but then Olive leans her head on his shoulder, revealing all of them, all in row (albeit in foreground and background), all together. The wide angle lens even keeps them all in focus and narrows the distance between them. It is a perfect, elegant visual intonation of the theme, and there isn’t a word spoken.
Little Miss Sunshine isn’t my pick for the best film of the year, but there’s certainly something to be said for such pleasant sentiments, beautifully rendered and performed, especially among a crowd of dark and violent pictures. I think the Academy likes to feel good about it’s Best Picture choice, and Sunshine is like the little independent movie that could. Like I said, it isn’t my choice, but if it wins, I won’t exactly be disappointed.