Saturday, November 20, 2010

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006): Movie About a Dysfunctional Family

There’s a lot of yelling that goes on in Little Miss Sunshine.  For at least the first half of the movie, almost every person we meet is little more than a cartoon character that we are supposed to surmise actually believes in their own bilge.  The father, Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker, remarkably like Tony Robbins and just about as annoying, and is trying to market his “9 Steps to Success” program to people who could give a damn.  Incidentally, his mania for inserting his motivational theories into everyday conversation is detrimental to everyone.  The mother, Sheryl (Toni Collette), is the modern soccer-mom type completely harried by all of the problems within her family, and whose parenting skills seem to come out of one of Dr. Spock’s child-raising manuals.  Uncle Frank (Steve Carrell), who is the brother of Sheryl and happens to be an eminent Proust scholar, recently attempted to slice his wrists after being jilted by his gay lover.  The teenage son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), who spends his time reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra and wearing a shirt that says “Jesus was wrong,” has taken a vow of silence going on nine months at the beginning of the movie that he is determined to maintain until he is accepted into the Air Force Academy.  Grandpa is a dirty old man who recently took up snorting heroin (not so easy to get a hold of in the old folks’ home, so he moved in with his son, Richard).  And seven year old, Olive (Abigail Breslin), who wants to win the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant, and is the only consistently real character throughout the whole movie.
Automations that the characters are, there are actually a couple of touching moments in the setting up of the absurd plot that is to come.  When Sheryl tells Frank that she’s happy he is still with us after his failed suicide attempt, Frank replies (sounding sincere): “That makes one of us.”  When Olive is crying and convinced that her father, Richard, thinks she is a loser, Grandpa gets Olive to believe in herself by telling her what a real winner is.  And it’s obvious that Olive’s presence is the one thing that keeps the family from tearing each other to pieces.
The family takes the old VW Van across country to California for the “Little Miss Sunshine” pageant.  One by one, each of their dreams is thwarted.  Richard’s last hope of making some money off of his program fails.  Frank runs into his former lover only to find him with his new boyfriend, another Proust scholar.  And Dwayne discovers that he is colorblind, which means that he can never enter the Air Force Academy.  Dwayne then angrily speaks for the first time in the movie, which is a relief.  (I was at first concerned that they were keeping Dano from having any speaking parts because of his being unable to act.  Actually, he proved he really could act once we actually heard his voice.)  Most importantly, Grandpa dies of a heroin overdose.  Nobody they meet along the way is sympathetic to the family’s plight.  The grief counselor that they meet after Grandpa dies seems more concerned about the forms that need to be filled out than to any actual needs of the family (thus resulting in the family sneaking the corpse out of the hospital and delivering it onto California).  Richard’s business partner puts the blame squarely on Richard for the failure of the 9-Step Program and refuses to have any more dealings with him.  The traffic cop does not care that the family is in a hurry to get to the “Little Miss Sunshine” contest and is only mollified when he discovers Grandpa’s porn.  The woman in charge of the beauty contest is unwilling to budge when the family arrives four minutes late, and only by groveling is Olive allowed to enter the pageant.
The child beauty pageant (an easy mark for satire ever since the JonBenet Ramsey killing) is, of course, as revolting as anyone could ever imagine.  It would be disconcerting if not for the fact the excesses of such pageants have been reported in every tabloid for the past ten years.  Olive, who is slightly pudgy like most normal children, does not seem to fit in well with all of the other seven year olds who are painted up to look like adults and who have already probably been introduced to diet pills.  Olive seems awkward in her one-piece bathing suit as compared to the other girls who are wearing thong bikini bottoms.  And both Richard and Dwayne are concerned that Olive will be laughed at when she does her dance at the talent contest.  Olive, however, has a surprise for everyone.  Her Grandpa coached her on what her skit should be, and Grandpa coached her well.  Olive does a mock striptease (in other words, she does not completely disrobe) and this amuses the more genuine people in the audience and shocks the rest.  The pageant organizers try to get Olive to stop, but the rest of the family gets up on the stage and participates in Olive’s routine to prevent this from happening.  Olive is thus banned from ever participating in a child beauty contest in California again.
I was expecting only bad things to come out of Little Miss Sunshine, and the first half of the movie turned out to be even worse than I expected.  When trying to create a theme around the need for compassion for those we consider “losers,” the moviemaker needs to be able to show us why we should care for these characters.  It took directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (who are husband and wife) so long to do this that I almost stopped watching the movie before I was half ways through.  Like so many family dramas that already appear on television, Little Miss Sunshine sensationalizes the quirks for each lead character almost to the point that we can’t really think of them as real human beings.  We can’t just have an unhappy grandfather who is frustrated by old age – he has to snort heroin.  We can’t just have a disgruntled teenager – he has to be a teenager so out of touch that he refuses to talk to anyone for several months.  We can’t have a normal father who is in financial straits because the factory he worked at has just laid off hundreds of workers – he has to be a motivational speaker who is on the brink of bankruptcy because he actually tries to practice his own bull crap.   The suicidal Uncle can’t just be depressed – he has to be a Proust scholar who is attempting to mimic his hero.  It’s not particularly funny stuff because you can only laugh so long at caricatures that berate each other.
Fortunately, we can start laughing at the humor when the characters actually show some human warmth.  In the last half of the movie, we actually see the characters change and break away from their self-destructive behavior when they decide to rally around Olive in pursuit of her goals.  Olive is the one real thing that they all believe in and this brings a sense of camaraderie to all of the family members.  If not for this change in perspective of the family members, this movie would have simply been crass.
Little Miss Sunshine is the first of the five films I’ve seen that were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar for 2006.  I won’t even comment if it deserves the award because I’m at a loss as to what the criteria for a nomination is.   When I criticized a Best Picture winner, American Beauty, for degrading the worth of human beings and for lauding shallowness to the hundredth degree, I had all sort of people telling me that it couldn’t be that bad.  It was that bad.  I can’t believe in a character that believes the right way towards human liberation is by being an ass to everyone around him.  At one point I was afraid I was going to see the same thing repeated in Little Miss Sunshine
The directors did something unusual here.  Often, movies start out strong only to run out of steam.  The reverse happens here.  The movie may have remained weak the entire way through if the two directors did not have the good sense to quicken up the pace during the second half.  We actually begin to forget why we hated so many of the characters at the beginning of the movie.  So no, Little Miss Sunshine is not one of the best movies ever made, but it could very well be as good as the movies it’s contending against in the Best Picture category.  The viewer has to be patient when watching the movie and to take it all in as a whole.  There are a number of individual scenes that would have been better left out.  Little Miss Sunshine does push the incredulity of just about any viewer.  But at least we have one character in the movie and sometimes others that we can care for.
January 29, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

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