Monday, December 18, 2006

Let The Sunshine Shine In

Here's my original review of Little Miss Sunshine (out on DVD tomorrow), as published in LINK magazine:

“Little Miss Sunshine” arrives with the curse of Sundance on its back. This family comedy, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, was sold to Fox Searchlight for $10 million at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. High-dollar deals guarantee plenty of press coming out of a festival, but box-office success doesn’t always follow. (Remember “Happy Texas”? Didn’t think so.) If there’s any justice, “Little Miss Sunshine” should have a happier fate. This comedy is a sly celebration of family; albeit a family narrowly prevented from flying apart by its youngest member. It’s the acceptance of young Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) into the “Little Miss Sunshine” child beauty pageant that sets the story in motion. Parents Richard and Sheryl (Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette) decide to shepherd the whole family from Albuquerque to California in an ancient VW bus; the family has hit financial hard times while motivational speaker Richard waits to see if his “9 Steps” success plan will earn him a book deal. Besides Olive, there’s Richard’s drug-using father (gleefully profane Alan Arkin), son Dwayne (Paul Dano), and recently suicidal brother-in-law Frank (Steve Carell, putting aside his comic persona). While “Little Miss Sunshine” is full of laughs and absurdity (and an unexpected loss), Michael Arndt’s script manages to avoid familiar melodramatic beats and the cast is never content to merely play the eccentricity of a scene. The quiet moments of connection and the way that each character finds solace from private pain are what make “Sunshine” linger in the mind after the closing credits. The climactic beauty pageant is presented as a grotesquerie of underdressed and over made-up children, it would have been easy for things to turn ugly or sappy, but the tonally perfect ending keeps the theme of unconventional family love intact. I admit to being thoroughly charmed by “Little Miss Sunshine.” The movie’s R rating is earned by some sexual dialogue and a scene of drug use. But if it’s possible for movie characters to make you love your own family more, the Hoovers might just do the trick.

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