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Film: Little Miss Sunshine

Poster for Little Miss Sunshine, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie FarisOne of the problems with the Academy Awards is that there are no separate categories for comedies over dramas. This is a shame only because a movie like Little Miss Sunshine might not get the recognition it deserves. If you have not seen this movie yet, do yourself a favor and do so. It is a visually beautiful, incisively written, character-driven, hilarious film. The story is simple. A family of unlikely characters somehow pulls it together to take a road trip in a yellow Volkswagen bus, to get their youngest member, Olive, from the family home in Albuquerque to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in California.

The most astounding performance, although it's hard to choose, is that of 10-year-old actress Abigail Breslin. She is a vulnerable yet irrepressible dynamo as Olive, the dumpy little girl (Breslin wore a fat suit to modify her shape) who improbably gets into the child beauty pageant scene. Alan Arkin is hysterical as the potty-mouthed, drug and sex fiend grandfather who designs her talent routine, a dance as absurd and heroic as that of Napoleon Dynamite. Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette capture the desperation of Frank and Cheryl, the parents struggling to keep life going for themselves and their family. Paul Dano is a dark, brooding Dwayne, the teenage brother probably closest to the author of the script, who gave his own copy of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra for Dwayne to read. (In a nice touch, Dwayne's T-shirts show the words "Jesus Was Wrong" and the face of Big Brother in the film of 1984.) Steve Carell gives a beautifully restrained performance as Frank, Cheryl's brother (charmingly, a leading Proust scholar) who has come to live with his sister's family after attempting suicide.

available at Amazon
Little Miss Sunshine, directed by
Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (released on December 19, 2006)
Hollywood is so unpredictable: at no point was it certain that this film would ever be made. Michael Arndt wrote the screenplay -- his first to get produced -- thinking that he would direct it himself and crafting the script so that the shooting could be as low-budget as possible. The husband-wife director team that eventually got it made, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, went through an incredible amount of work to find the money and will to do it. Even more unlikely, it is their first feature film after careers working in television and music video. In spite of the process being dragged out over five years, they assembled a cast that could not be more perfect. The stars just aligned somehow.

In the DVD commentary, Michael Arndt confesses that his own family's VW bus broke down with a burned-out clutch on a family vacation -- art imitates life. He and his three brothers had to push the bus up to speed because the clutch could shift only between third and fourth. He said that they drove all the way from Maine back to their home in Virginia like that, driving through toll booths and throwing change at the attendants. (Several other developments in the plot are drawn from Arndt's own life, too.) Yes, I know, I know, do I really listen to the commentaries? In fact, there are two on this DVD. The first one is just the two directors, and the other is the two directors with the screenwriter. They cover much of the same territory, but in the second the directors almost sound like they are still explaining why they changed this and that in the script. It's strange. Considering all the adversity, it is a miracle that a film this good got made. I saw this, finally, through Netflix, but it likely that we will acquire this DVD. This is a movie I will watch many more times.


Todd said...

Agreed, agreed. Definately in my top 5 of the year. I gave away copies for Christmas and from all my fussing about it, recieved one of my own. As much as I adore breslin, I think the two toughest roles were Carell and Kinear...both are balancing shattered egos and loss with the vain hope that theres meaning in any of it. Brillaint.

Charles T. Downey said...

Todd, thanks for that. Carell was so dead on, beyond description. Kinnear, too, and I am normally annoyed by him. Frankly, Toni Collette was the only one not absolutely amazing (but still good).