August 17, 2006

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Little Miss Sunshine (R)
A suicidal Proust scholar, a heroin-addicted grandpa and a Successories aphorisms-spouting dad add up to a charming tale about the importance of family in Little Miss Sunshine, the first summer comedy to actually get me laughing out loud.

Sheryl (Toni Collette) serves Sprite with her family’s dinner but she clearly needs a glass of something far stronger. After getting off early from work, she heads to the hospital to pick up her brother Frank (Steve Carell), until recently the country’s foremost Proust scholar. He has recently tried to kill himself (unrequited love for a male graduate student plus professional disappointment was just too much for him) and Sheryl is taking him to her house to recuperate.

Her house already has one semi-temporary guest sleeping on the couch — her husband’s father (Alan Arkin), who was kicked out of his retirement home for snorting heroin. Frank, therefore, must share a room with Dwanye (Paul Dano), a sullen, goth-black-haired 15-year-old who has decided not to talk anymore. Frank is nonetheless able to convey his bone-deep weariness with Richard (Greg Kinnear), his mom’s second husband, who is trying to launch a career based on a nine-steps-to-success program. Steeped in the language of business motivation, Richard is obsessed with the idea of winners and losers, a concept his and Sheryl’s 7-year-old daughter best understands in terms of beauty pageants. She was a runner up in one and plans to compete in more, though not at the same level as most lip-gloss-slathered and taffeta-ensconced Little Misses. A round faced girl with round, thick glasses, Olive gets most of her coaching from her grandpa, whose idea of the perfect show tune is “Superfreak.”

When Olive finds out that she’s now a finalist for the Little Miss Sunshine contest, she’s ecstatic and, through a process of “I can’t drive stick” and “Frank can’t stay alone,” the whole family finds itself on the road to the pageant, which is some dozen or more hours away in Redondo Beach, Calif. Along the way, the family deals with a variety of problems, including the VW Bus’s lack of a clutch (requiring the whole family to push the car into a running start) and Richard’s increasing distraction about the book deal he’s supposed to sign for his nine-steps program.

Smart writing helps show off strong performances all around in this film. Carell, Kinnear, Collette and Arkin don’t venture too far away from territory they’ve covered before but, rather than seeming recycled, elements like Kinnear’s desperate optimism and Carell’s low-key despair seem natural. These performances help build a community relationship that not only gives us a good approximation of an actual family but makes us feel that we know these family members and are as much in on the ongoing jokes as we are watching them from the outside.

Abigail Breslin does a fantastic job creating a kid character that feels like a real kid (completely with strange wardrobe — she’s always wearing red cowboy boots — and a nerdy way of wearing her glasses). The movie uses her Oliveness particularly well when we finally get to the beauty pageant and are faced with the completely alien-looking girls who make up the rest of the contestant pool. With their giant hair and heavily made-up faces, they look less like children and more like bobbleheads of Vegas show girls. Olive, with her ponytail and her homemade costume, remains a real girl.

The words “feel-good movie” usually do not denote a movie that in any way makes me feel good (I generally find that the term “heartwarming” actually means “stomach churning”). But Little Miss Sunshine had me laughing (and, at times, not just modest chuckles but real face-contorting, stomach crunching, wails-that-sound-like-crying laughter) and smiling and thoroughly enjoying the quirky soundtrack dotted with Sufjan Stevens songs. The family is terribly cute in its eccentricities (insofar as a heroin-snorting grandpa and a suicidal uncle are cute) and there is a lot of very direct, unsubtle attention paid to the idea of family. But sullen, non-verbal teen and pageant-obsessed coke-bottle-glasses-wearing pre-tween is a kind of cute I can buy into. A-

— Amy Diaz


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