Sunday, January 28, 2007

Oscar Nominee Review: Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine
: R
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Abigail Breslin,
Steve Carell, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano
Directed By: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

Nominated for:
-Best Picture
-Best Supporting Actor (Arkin)
-Best Supporting Actress (Breslin)
-Best Original Screenplay

What do you get when you cross a heroin-addicted grandfather, an angst-riddled teenage son, a perpetually peppy father, an emotionally burdened mother, a suicidal gay uncle and a precocious & preternaturally mature daughter and throw them in a dilapidated old VW Microbus?

The Magical Misery Tour that is Little Miss Sunshine.

The reviews on IMDb for this charming little indie fave run the gamut from "a pathetically boring and unimaginative film" to "simply perfect." Too many of the reviews, however, are along the lines of "how can a simple little film like that be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar?"
What those myopic morons don't realize is that the beauty & genius of this film is its simplicity as the members of the Hoover family take the viewers on a non-stop emotional roller coaster ride that leaves you feeling happy, sad, satisfied and wanting more all at the same time. Last time I checked those were all qualities of an Oscar-caliber film.

The story centers around young Olive (Breslin, at 10 the 4th youngest nominee ever), an 11-year old "normal" kid living in Albuquerque with her decidedly abnormal family. Olive entered a local beauty pageant and finished second, but when the winner was disqualified due to a diet drug scandal, Olive becomes the region's representative to the annual Little Miss Sunshine Pageant in Redondo Beach, CA. Olive's high-pitched reaction to learning that she has been selected is one of the film's best early moments and immediately endears lovable little Olive to the viewer.

In order to get to the pageant, the entire clan has to pile into the run-down old yellow bus and travel 800 miles in two days to reach the pageant on time. Sounds simple enough, right? It would be if the family wasn't comprised of enough social misfits and psychological basket cases to fill a month's worth of Dr. Phil episodes.

Mom Sheryl (Collette), the counterweight to the emotional pitfalls of each of her family mem-bers, is fearful that her husband Richard (Kinnear) has blown all of their savings on his cock-amamie "9 Steps" motivational program. Richard is an obnoxious preacher of over-achievement who is prone to spout pearls of wisdom like "sarcasm is for losers trying to bring winners down to their level," among other gems, yet he cannot get one person to believe in his nine step plan for a better life, including most of his family.

Sheryl's parenting skills are really put to the test when she is forced to take in her disturbed brother, Frank. Frank has got a couple of issues he's dealing with. He was fired from his prestigious teaching job (he was the No. 1 Proust scholar in the country) after his boyfriend left him for the one man in their field above Frank so he subsequently tried to kill himself. Now, he has become a card-carrying member of the Hoover brood where he must share a bedroom with 17-year-old Dwayne (Dano, The King) lest he try to 'off' himself again.

Dwayne is a typical teenager who mopes around the house looking like the world's about to end while trying to cope with the insanity that permeates his daily life. There's really only one strange thing about Dwayne--he has taken a vow of silence in honor of Friedrich Nietzsche until he achieves his ultimate dream of being accepted into the Air Force Academy to become a fighter pilot. We learn that Dwayne has been faithful to his vow for 9 months now, a feat that Richard truly respects for the monumental commitment Dwayne is making for something he believes in. In lieu of speaking, Dwayne writes all of his thoughts down on a notepad, a prop that provides a couple of classic tag lines for the movie.

Rounding out the crazy crew is Richard's irascible father, Edwin Hoover, better known as Grandpa (Arkin.) Grandpa has a few reprehensible tendencies, like the fact he loves to snort heroin, talk like a foul-mouthed sailor, and chase tail whenever possible ("f**k a lot of women" he tells Dwayne, "not just one, a lot"), but he loves Olive and has dedicated his days and nights to teaching her a routine for her pageant career.

Due to the lack of family funds (thanks to Richard) and Olive's usual pageant ride falling through, the entire family must travel to Redondo in order for Olive to be able to fulfill her dream of being crowned Little Miss Sunshine. The idea initially goes over like a lead balloon, especially with Dwayne who needs to be bribed by Sheryl with a paid trip to flight school in order to be persuaded, but quickly everyone agrees if for no other reason than their love of Olive. As soon as they climb into that little yellow bus, an adventure of Oscar-worthy pro-portions begins. One filled with plenty of side-splitting humor, tear-inducing pain, and real family bonding which is absent in so many of today's films and TV programs.

Needless to say, the road to Albuquerque is paved with many potholes; the first of which they encounter after stopping for breakfast. In the diner, we witness Richard's obsessive personality damaging Olive's psyche when he attempts to persuade her to forgo sweets like chocolate ice cream because "Miss America's aren't fat, are they?" Upon leaving, the bus suffers the first of many maladies--a stripped clutch. The garage worker tells them it will be five days until he can get a replacement part for the old vehicle because "it's the weekend" but also enlightens them to the fact that they can start it in 3rd gear if they can get a rolling start.

Thus, one of the most memorable and amusing "running" gags in all of cinema is born; the entire family push-starting the bus every time they need to get it started. The sight of 70-something Grandpa, lazy Dwayne, tiny Olive, weak Mom, and the "No. 1 Proust scholar in the country" running, pushing, and then hopping into the moving vehicle brought tears to my eyes. It is a sight that never gets tired, despite the numerous times we see it throughout the course of the film. It's no coincidence that the scene was chosen as the backdrop for the awesome theatrical poster depicted above.

Without giving too much away (you know I'm not into *spoilers*), other events transpire along the route; some tragic and others hilarious but often tied together with commingling tears of laughter & sadness. At some points, you will literally find yourself ready to cry one moment and then laugh hysterically the next. It takes a very special film to be able to authentically elicit those emotions as this film does, one of the many reasons why I am convinced it is undoubtedly Best Picture material.

By the time the family arrives in Redondo, I remarkably found myself not caring about the outcome of the trip. It was yet another surefire sign of a great film--I cared so much about the characters and the life journey they were on that I didn't care if the end result was a pageant crown or bitter disappointment. The only thing I cared about was seeing if this lovable collection of middle class losers could hold on to whatever sense of twisted family unity they had.

Obviously, I stayed with it until the conclusion and was very glad I did because I would have missed one of the best movie endings in recent memory. Olive and family make it to the pageant 5 minutes late and must plead with a bitchy official who is reluctant to let them enter. A sympathetic employee (terrific cameo by Wallace Langham ) allows Olive to enter but it doesn't take long for the family to discover what a freak show the pageant world really is.

As Richard and Dwayne try to convince Sheryl that allowing Olive to participate would only serve to embarrass & humiliate the chubby, bespectacled Olive, who they now realize is obviously not beauty queen material, Olive insists on following through on her dream. What ensues is a finale reminiscent of Napoleon Dynamite, only much more rewarding. Like that film's lead character's surprising expression of repressed talent, this is one that will stay with the viewer for a long time to come.

In summary, this is one of the best films I have seen in a long time, depicting fragments of a broken family unit held together by a spunky 11-year-old girl and her rose-colored view of the world. The actors involved all give superb performances. It is as easy to understand how Breslin & Arkin were nominated as it is confusing to understand why Carell and Kinnear were not.

The only thing left to say is that it is a shame that the Academy did not nominate the directing duo Dayton & Faris for their work because it took special guidance to guide this spunky little film down the road to success.

Anyone who believes Little Miss Sunshine doesn't belong with the Hollywood heavyweights has never laughed at the sight of a VW MicroBus beeping down the highway with a rag-tag family inside holding onto each other for dear life.

1 comment:

jimcaserta said...

Awesome review. I loved the movie too.