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Little Miss Sunshine

“Little Miss Sunshine” is a comedy and a road movie about a family with nothing left to lose.   After his doctor orders him not to be alone following a suicide attempt, Frank (Steve Carrel), a gay Proust scholar, moves in with his sister Sheryl (Toni Collette) and her dysfunctional, unhappy family (sounds hilarious so far, no?).   She’s stressed by their finances and verges on being fed up with her unsuccessful husband, Richard (Greg Kinnear), who aspires to be one of those banal motivational speakers peculiar to American culture, exhorting his few listeners to will themselves into “winners”.   Their alienated teenage son has taken a vow of silence inspired by Nietzsche, evidencing by his interest in the philosopher of “the will” that he’s perhaps internalized his father’s spiel more than he’d care to admit.   Richard’s own father (Alan Arkin) is a profane, heroin-snorting WWII vet.  

Seven-year-old Olive dreams of winning a beauty contest despite being far from a JonBenet (she’s a bit homely and pudgy, with horn-rimmed spectacles).   When they receive late notice that she’s a finalist in a beauty/talent contest to be held in California, the family hops in their ramshackle VW van to try to make it from Albuquerque to the Sunshine State in time.   Whatever their contempt for one another, love for young Olive unites them.   She’s their shared project, their common interest.   Abigail Breslin is just right in the role, particularly in a scene with Arkin in which she reveals to her grandpa her secret fear that her daddy will shun her as a loser if she doesn’t win.  

On the American TV version of “The Office” Carrel plays the “slimy boss” (to use the phrase coined by Ricky Gervais to describe the character he invented and played so brilliantly in the British original).   It’s interesting to muse that Carrel could have been cast effectively in this movie as Richard, the loser obsessed with winning.   Likewise, a casting director recalling Kinnear’s performance in “As Good As it Gets” might justifiably have pegged him to play Frank, the depressive gay fellow.  

This is one of those rare occasions when I can confidently say that everyone within earshot of my reviews will thoroughly enjoy this movie.   It has more heart than anything I’ve seen recently, and while it focuses its critique on the creepiness of eroticized beauty contests for little girls, in a subtle way it’s more broadly questioning of “success” as a U.S. cultural value.   It’s about conformity and happiness and dreams in today’s America, saying that being your own eccentric self is preferable in every way to being “normal”. 

- Aug 27, 2006

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