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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

After seeing Little Miss Sunshine at the Essex Cinemas I realized that this is the perfect Christmas movie to air annually at every orphanage in America. No, there are no trees or snow scenes or fat jolly elves, but if ever there was something to remind these parentless kids that not having a family can be a positive thing then Little Miss Sunshine is it.

I’m not sure the filmmakers planned on sending this
message. If anything, this tale of a dysfunctional family hanging together by a thread would appear to promote the idea that no matter how disparate the characters (and these people are quite the characters!), the bottom line is that no matter how tough the road may seem, both figuratively and literally, they always have each other. The question the viewer has to ask is whether that is a comforting thought or not.

Imagine yourself in the tiny shoes of Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin; Signs), a seemingly normal nine year old girl living in an eddy of oddity. She seems happy to imagine herself a someday beauty queen thanks to the encouragement of her grandfather, Alan Arkin (Raising Flagg). What Olive doesn’t know about Grandpa is that what recently brought him to live with her and her parents was not familial love but his expulsion from the senior housing facility where he resided due to his perpetually bad behavior, never-ending profanity, and (ahem) a slight heroin problem. Meanwhile, Olive’s parents have their own problems.

Richard (Greg Kinnear; Invincible) is a desperate wannabe motivational speaker
who is getting nowhere in his struggle to sell his book on the nine steps to being a winner. His philosophy that “everything is possible if you want it bad enough” is being tested to the max as the fear of his own failure hangs heavy over his head. This hasn’t helped his marriage. Wife Sheryl (Toni Collette; The Night Listener) has tried to keep their family together but she is at her wit’s end with Richard’s proselytizing to a point that Olive now thinks that she must never not win first place in any competition or game. Everything is about winning and losing instead of about living and loving.

Olive’s 15 year old brother Dwayne (played by 22 year old Paul Dano of the upcoming Fast Food Nation) has chosen to remain mute for the past nine months and intends to continue in silence
until he is accepted into the Air Force Academy to escape the family, which he is quick to scrawl on his notepad is the source of his hatred. “Welcome to Hell” he writes to his Uncle Frank, played with astounding depth and pathos by tv’s “The Office” star Steve Carell. While Carell became an overnight sensation thanks to his hit film The 40 Year Old Virgin and then his surprise hit television show, he actually filmed this role before either of his other projects were aired, and his ensemble acting here was not intended to be a star turn, but Carell’s performance is so naturally both touching and funny that he just obviously rises above the others and takes center focus. Here he is Sheryl’s gay brother, a Proust scholar, who she retrieves from the hospital after a botched suicide attempt, having slit his wrists over the rejection of one of his grad students who rejected him in favor of another of his colleagues for romance. Now he is living in Dwayne’s room, under 24 hour a day suicide watch, with the family instructed to keep sharp objects away from him.

In this environment sweet little Olive lives a gentle life, mostly oblivious to the dramas and traumas that swirl around her. Instead, she practices dance routines with her grandfather and dreams of
her days to come as Miss America. Fortunately for her, Sheryl has had enough faith in her daughter’s talents to support her in her bid to compete in local pageants, one of which has secured her a spot to compete in the national “Little Miss Sunshine” extravaganza in Redondo Beach, California. There’s just one not-so-little problem. How to get there?

Richard doesn’t have the money for Sheryl and Olive to fly to California from their home in Albuquerque, and if Sheryl is going then Richard figures he should come too, especially since the book agent he is stalking is out there, and he could drive them, saving money on the airfare. If Richard is going to go, however, then Grandpa insists he should also get to attend since he is the one who’s been coaching Olive with her dancing all along, but if he’s going then who is going to be left to keep an eye on Frank but Dwayne, and that would be too much to expect of a teenager. Obviously, the only solution is for the entire clan to pack up the 1980 VW van and drive the 800 miles together.

This is where the orphans can rejoice because it doesn’t take long before they will
inevitably feel as I did and begin calculating which one of these people they would chose to throw under the wheels of the van first as it speeds down Interstate 10 heading west. This isn’t to say the movie is not extremely funny and full of a roaring great laughs. It is one of the funniest films I’ve seen in the past year, if not longer; it’s just that if this was real life none of these people would be bearable to be around except Olive and maybe Uncle Frank once he had recovered from his failed love affair. The rest of them are just so full of angst it would be hard to make it out of state before I’d be out of my mind.

The journey to Redondo Beach is chock full of adventures, i.e., nightmares, problems, delays, whatever, but these are the things that bring out the spirit within each of these characters and
make them funnier, in one case you might even say drop dead funny and be right on the mark.

Finally, of course, there is the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant itself, which gives first time writer
Michael Arndt the opportunity to skewer the world of pre-teen beauty pageants. It is unfortunate that the movie coincidentally has reached wide release at just the same time as the JonBenet Ramsey case has been back in the news because the horror of that real world murder takes a bit of the humorous sting out of Arndt’s overly made-up, bewigged, and spray-tanned JonBenet cookie-cutter clones, not that they are less than perfect representations of the scary things mothers do to their daughters within the pageant circuit, but precisely because of it. They are a bit too creepy a reminder of the type of lure that sends a pedophile like John Mark Karr into palpitations.

Overall, the cast of Little Miss Sunshine does a fabulous job and each and every one deserves kudos for their ability to make their individual characters memorable. Kinnear overcomes his matinee idol good looks to let us believe that Richard really could be a desperate loser, which we know he is just to suave to be in real life; Toni Collette shows no trace of her Australian roots as the harried American mom, and Paul Dano may be well past his mid-teens but he captures the angst, bitterness, and unintentional humor of that age perfectly. As noted earlier, Carell is eye-opening in his range, and Alan Arkin is literally drop-dead funny in more ways than one, although if anyone can be accused of coming off stiff in the film it is most likely him, but you'll have to see it to understand what I mean. The true star though is nine year old Abigail Breslin, who is the heart and soul of the movie. Without her fantastic ability to shine through all the histrionics going on around her Little Miss Sunshine could sink into slapstick.

This last week has not been a good time for our community, and a movie is not going to make these events disappear, but if you feel the need for a few hours of respite from the malaise that has affected us all I think you will find Little Miss Sunshine out at the Essex Cinemas a good place to start. True, it might cheer the orphans who will be glad to realize that sometimes not having the complicated worries of a complicated family is a good thing, but it also offers a warm portrait of some crazy kin who, for better or worse, find the bonds of DNA are stronger than they could have imagined. One thing is guaranteed. You will laugh.

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