Thursday, September 28, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

From competitive sports, common wisdom has inherited certain cliches, one of those being: "there can be only one winner". Those who espouse this axiom will tell you that as people, we can fall into one of two categories: 'winners' or 'losers'. (Generally speaking though, it's the people who have just won that come out with stuff like this. Twelfth place just doesn't get the same publicity!)

In "Little Miss Sunshine" we are introduced to the Hoovers, a family populated almost exclusively by losers. Each is in assorted stages of loserdom (denial, depression, anger) and employing various coping mechanisms to deal with the harsh reality of their predicaments: suicide, heroin, vows of silence...

Now at first glance, this may not sound the stuff of a light-hearted comedy with a heart of gold and a brain to boot, but as most right-thinking comedy fans will tell you: the best comic characters are downtrodden, and certainly not winners. For whatever perverse reason, the misfortunes of tragic characters have always been a source of comedy gold (think David Brent, Basil Fawlty, Alan Partridge..), and the misfortunes of the male leads in "Little Miss Sunshine" are no small potatoes: Richard (Greg Kinnear)'s career (as a motivational speaker, ironically) is in freefall. Grandpa Edwin (Alan Arkin) is snorting heroin, "because I'm old." Dwayne (Paul Dano) is fifteen, and has taken a vow of silence, inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche. And Frank (Steve Carell's character), well, let's just say he's at a bit of a low point.

However, in the midst of all this disappointment is the blissfully innocent seven-year-old Abigail, who receives the news that she has won a place in the 'Little Miss Sunshine' kids beauty pageant. Richard and Sheryl (Olive's mom, played by Toni Collette) immediately argue over how the trip to California can be achieved - an early indicaton to us of their rapidly disintegrating relationship - and the eventual solution reached is that the whole family pile into a beaten up VW Van, and drive the 800 miles cross-country to the pageant...

The mix of characters in Little Miss Sunshine is brilliantly devised, and just as well portrayed by an excellent cast. Alan Arkin, playing Richard's father, is grizzled and abrasive. Dwayne is in the last place he wants to be, although he slowly develops a relationship with his morose uncle Frank. Richard (Kinnear) is relentlessly positive in the face of his failing career and marriage, continually referring to his '9 step plan' to success ad nauseam, much to the annoyance of anyone within earshot. The enforced interaction in the van is great to watch, with Olive's walkman a useful device to allow Grandpa Arkin vent his spleen at any opportunity, driving his son (Kinnear) crazy.

I won't give anything away about the second or third acts of the movie, but I can safely say the pageant scenes from the little miss sunshine contest are like nothing else you'll have seen in a movie!

Despite of (or possibly thanks to) its population of tragic losers, "Little Miss Sunshine" is a charming, bright comedy, poignant in its more thoughtful moments. The central themes of ambition and disappointment, or winning versus losing, permeate the words and deeds of the Hoover family, and will leave you with a smile on your face, and maybe even something to think about when the credits roll... you never know!

Verdict: Warm, sad and funny, a slow-burning comedy that shouldn't disappoint.
Rating: 8/10

1 comment:

Aaron said...

I think eight out of ten may be a little too generous for this film. It's a quirky film where the quirkiness is a little bit hackneyed. The characters never really come alive. They each have their peculuarity that seems to be there just to build the required dysfunctional family. Six out of ten. Granted, the beauty contest is an amazing sceen. The way in which a parade of eight year olds is transformed from something so creepy intto such an innocent and delightful dance is wonderfully done.

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