Little Miss Sunshine (15)
ANDREW CLARKE The films that make the strongest impression are those quirky one-off movies that offer something different. This is the perfect description of Little Miss Sunshine, an ensemble comedy, packed full of dysfunctional relationships and topped off the lashings of black humour.
As you get older, the films that make the strongest impression are those quirky one-off movies that offer something different. This is the perfect description of Little Miss Sunshine, an ensemble comedy, packed full of dysfunctional relationships and topped off the lashings of black humour.
The target for the laughs is the foibles of earnest middle America which has provided a rich vein of material for such diverse independent films as Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums.
Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have toiled away for a long time to make sure that this black comedy has a well-focused target. This is no generic, sub-TV, teen-based laugh fest packed with off-the-peg gross-out gags. The script for Little Miss Sunshine is razor-sharp and the performances are universally first rate.
The film follows the fortunes of the Hoover family. Greg Kinnear, once again, gives a stunning performance as an American everyman. He is a motivational speaker and has developed a new nine-step method to guarantee success. “There is no such thing as luck,” he solemnly tells his young daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin), “If you want it bad enough, if you are positive and focused you will win.”
Olive is a rather plain, bespectacled girl, who yearns to be a pre-teen beauty queen. With Kinnear away trying to raise awareness and funding to publish his self-help guide and her mother (Toni Collette) dashing here, there and everywhere trying to keep the family schedule on track it is up to opinionated Grandpa Hoover (Alan Arkin) to coach her on her way to victory.
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The film opens with Collettte driving to the local hospital to pick up her gay brother from the psychiatric department where he has been interned since he tried to commit suicide. The cause of his breakdown was a cruel double-blow that saw his young lover running off with his great rival. Collette takes him home where his recovery is supposed to nurtured by a loving, supportive family environment - unhappily he is forced to share a room with the Hoover's goth-styled teenage son who has taken a vow of silence in protest at the way that life has treated him.
Despite the tensions in the family, when a chance comes up for Olive to take part in the finals of The Little Miss Sunshine contest the family jump into their ageing VW camper van and motor west to California and en route discover a strange sort of unity.
More importantly, we as an audience, come to know them better and they stop being absurd freaks and start looking like a group of real, if a little bizarre, individuals.
Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, rather like most of us I suspect, have trouble understanding America's obsession with beauty pageants and The Little Miss Sunshine is depicted as a creepy exercise in child exploitation populated by power-crazed women with bouffant hair and sleazy men.
The direction is pleasingly low key, Dayton and Faris don't get in the way of the action - they just allow the actors room to breathe and establish their characters and use the camera to record the action rather than being a character in its own right.
The clever thing about Little Miss Sunshine is that it is continually changing tack and is hard to pin down as any one thing.
It is certainly a satire on American life, but it is also a farce populated with porn-loving motorcycle cops and body snatching and, above all, it is a relationship-driven road movie which speeds along at a greater pace than the Hoovers' clapped-out old VW.
It's also a film that doesn't outstay its welcome and it's tight, taut and finishes on a satisfying high. By the end of the film this group of misfits have bonded not only with each other but with the audience as well.