Little Miss Sunshine Review

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris come from the world of rock videos where they have built an impressive body of work. Little Miss Sunshine is their first full length film and it’s an astonishingly fluent debut. It’s a film about family which is warm and touching without being simplistic or cloying and the ultimate effect is joyous enough to make you punch the air with happiness.

The film has been admirably reviewed here by Kevin O’Reilly and as I agree with his comments, this will be a relatively brief review in which I’ll add a few observations of my own. I do think it’s one of the most impressive feature debuts of the past ten years and it augers well for the future – the direction is simple but fluid and they know how to hold and build a scene (such as the dinner table conversation from the start) without using fancy camera tricks.

The subject of child beauty pageants is a deeply controversial one and I’m not sure I have either the space or the inclination to go into it in any depth. Little Miss Sunshine adopts a deliberately ambivalent attitude. On the one hand, the contest is revealed as a deeply tasteless, potentially dangerous sham which exploits and objectifies young children. On the other, the film isn’t afraid to suggest that, for some of the girls involved, the pageants are exciting, challenging and have a significant meaning in their lives. It seems to be saying that children have a very different response to these contests than adults do. I think that the pageants, while horrendously vulgar spectacles, are not much more damaging as a phenomenon than, for example, the use of Shirley Temple in films of the 1930s. For Olive, the contest means more than simply putting on a performance. It gives her a sense of herself, it deepens her relationship with her doting grandfather and, perhaps most importantly, it gives her a focus which her family, for all her father’s platitudes about success, doesn’t provide. She also seems to know how ridiculous it all is and her final performance seems to me to have a sense of self-mockery that delights in challenging the assumptions of the matrons in charge.

This fence-sitting might disappoint anyone who wants a savage satire of middle-America. But it fits in very well with a film that is principally characterised by its astonishing generosity of spirit. It shows people as they are and sometimes gently mocks them, but it’s only on rare occasions that anyone is seriously maligned and when this happens it’s in the contest scenes which are broadly played in any case. Some critics have complained that the message of the film is essentially conservative – that it is saying that family is everything. But I don’t think it’s that simple. It’s celebrating the ability of a family to support each other but it also demonstrates how conventional family life can be asphyxiating in its smug atmosphere of platitudes and self-assurance. It celebrates the dysfunctional family. It also, on a deeper level, acknowledges that dysfunction is a normal mode of being, one that allows us to tolerate and even love one another with a depth that conventional happiness might not give rise to.

But it’s not entirely necessary to look for deeper meanings in Little Miss Sunshine because it’s very good at being what it is – a highly professional, very funny independent comedy which takes the classic road movie format and adds a dash of social satire and a sharp observation of a family who don’t really communicate being flung together. This is Michael Arndt’s first screenplay and it’s a fine debut because like most good American comedy, it gets faster and funnier as it goes along. He’s very adept at keeping a number of narrative strands in the air without losing sight of them and everything comes together very satisfyingly at the end. Arndt also rejects easy sentimentality, opting instead for mordant wit in the face of tragedy and a mature realisation that failure, far from being something to dread, is actually a necessary part of the human condition. This kind of comedy also heavily depends on the dialogue and Arndt proves he is a master of slightly whacked-out observations which come out the off-kilter characters. It’s not a particularly quotable film; the lines are funny because of who says them and the context in which they appear – Grandpa’s “I can say what I want. I still got Nazi bullets in my ass” for example or Olive’s reply when asked where her Grandpa is.

The characterisation is uniformly sharp and Arndt is lucky to find a cast who are willing to give their all. Greg Kinnear has the ideal bland all-American looks to play a motivational guru but also has the acting chops to evoke failure and disillusion. If Richard seems to be the weakest role, that’s largely because he’s made so unsympathetic in the first half that it’s hard to fully rehabilitate him, despite his turn of character towards the end. Kinnear suggests how a life devoted to the notion that winning is everything can fall apart when all the winning options have been closed-off. Toni Collette is as reliable as you would expect from such a splendid actress and Paul Dano is just right as Olive’s taciturn brother.

The biggest surprises are Steve Carell – who is just as good at drama as he is at comedy – and Abigail Breslin who gives the best performance from a pre-teen child that I’ve seen in years. I want to reserve special praise for Alan Arkin because he is the film’s major link with the great American movies of the past and as you watch him, you remember those films he starred in - Catch-22, The In-Laws, Wait Until Dark, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter - and your affection for the actor is transferred onto the character. Our pleasure at seeing him again is one of the real joys of the film.

Ultimately, Little Miss Sunshine triumphs because it is itself a dose of sunshine. Without patronising or condescending, it enjoys its quirky characters and does honour to the notion that nobody is normal. If it leaves us feeling happier than just about any film of the past year, that’s maybe because, deep down, it’s a celebration of the courage which people show all the time in facing everyday life.

The Disc

Little Miss Sunshine arrives on R2 DVD four months after its limited theatrical release and will hopefully now reach the wide audience it deserves.

The film is presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer which I found very impressive. There is a small amount of grain present but so is abundant detail, true colours and a general sharpness. I did notice very occasional aliasing and there is some definite edge-enhancement visible but on the whole this is a very pleasing transfer.

The soundtrack is a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that does the job perfectly. Everything is in suitable balance and the all-important dialogue comes through clear as a bell. The music also sounds very good, though Rick James might not be thanking the filmmakers any time soon.

Extras are limited to a commentary and some alternate endings. This leads me to think that a more loaded edition might be on the way later in the year but that’s merely supposition on my part. The commentary track features directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and is enthusiastic and amusing but not particularly riveting. Everyone, needless to say, was wonderful to work with and they are very proud of their work. We also get four alternate endings, none of which are any good, and these have commentaries which tend to emphasise how embarrassed the directors feel about them. The first ending has a forced commentary but the other three can be seen with or without comments.

The DVD has optional subtitles and also has an audio descriptive track. Pleasingly, the commentary is also subtitled.

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