Little Miss Sunshine Review

In the dictionary, under dysfunctional, there could be a group photo of the Hoover family. Father Richard (Greg Kinnear) is an aspiring self-help guru who lectures on finding your inner winner. Sullen, teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano) reads Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence. Grandpa (Alan Arkin) has been thrown out of his retirement home for snorting heroin. Geeky pre-teen daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) dreams of being a beauty queen. Uncle Frank (Steve Carell) is the country's number one Proust scholar and has just attempted suicide over his unrequited crush on a male student. Mother Sheryl (Toni Collette), the normal one, tries to keep her family together and prevent them from harming themselves and each other.

The catalyst that brings all the Hoovers' problems to a head is Olive's big break. When the winner of a local child beauty contest at which she was runner-up is disqualified ("something to do with diet pills"), Olive takes her place in the national finals of Little Miss Sunshine in California. Her parents insist on being supportive so, with varied levels of enthusiasm, the family dutifully piles into Richard's clapped-out Volkswagen camper van and sets off for the West Coast.

There are few film genres more dependable than the American road movie. Assemble a number of characters with major issues - it could be two, as in Rain Man, or a whole coach-load, as in Spike Lee's Get On The Bus - and send them on a journey across the vast expanses of the US, a journey on which they'll meet colourful people, they'll get into and out of some tricky situations and, most importantly, their personal problems will be forced into the open and ultimately resolved.

There's already been a good road movie released this year: Transamerica, which starred Felicity Huffman as a pre-op transexual forced to take a trip with his/her long lost son. It was a little rough around the edges but it worked nevertheless because of its fresh, sympathetic characters and the justly Oscar-nominated lead performance by Huffman. The road movie formula can be recycled endlessly as long as we care about the people taking the trip. When we don't, the result is R.V.

Little Miss Sunshine gets it right. It's a not just a road movie but a smart, adult comedy not a million miles from Garden State and Sideways. Like those films, it keeps you laughing all the way and then surprises you with how emotionally involved you've become. The film's characters, who seem broad and in some cases abrasive in the beginning, have deepened and grown on you by the end. The last scene, which centres around the Little Miss Sunshine pageant manages to be both a savagely funny commentary on child beauty contests - which, if they're accurately represented here, are one step up from child porn - and genuinely heartwarming at the same time.

This movie is blessed with a great cast, starting with Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette, two of the best actors working today and ending with 10-year-old Abigail Breslin, who played Mel Gibson's daughter in Signs and proves that, whatever you might think of M Night Shyamalan, there's no denying he can spot talented kids. Breslin gets the funniest line in the film (you'll know it) and it isn't wasted on her.

All the actors are terrific - let's not forget Paul Dano and Alan Arkin - but the one you'll probably come away talking about is comedian Steve Carell, who is sensational in a rare, semi-serious role - although he still gets nearly as many laughs as he did in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Behind the camera are three first-timers. Writer Michael Arndt has never before had a script produced, while directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are music video veterans making their first feature. This is an incredibly assured piece of work for a debut film.

I want to call Little Miss Sunshine a "feel-good movie" but I know the term sets off alarm bells in many people. It makes you think of those horrendous chick flicks that end with Sandra Bullock crying and hugging someone. Little Miss Sunshine is nothing like that - cineastes and hardened cynics should appreciate its charms as much as ordinary movigoers. It's a film with brains, humanity and biting wit. And it does honestly make you feel good.



out of 10

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