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It's All Relative

Indie comedy puts the fun in dysfunctional

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In the rocker "We're a Happy Family," The Ramones present a dysfunctional family in which "Daddy's telling lies, Baby's eating flies, Mommy's on pills, Baby's got the chills." The clan at the center of the Sundance hit Little Miss Sunshine isn't much better off.

Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear) has developed a motivational program ("Refuse To Lose") featuring the nine steps to success; unfortunately, no one is motivated to invest in it. His wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) has supported his endeavors but is running out of strength and patience when it comes to keeping everyone in line. Her gay brother Frank (Steve Carell) has just attempted suicide after being jilted by his lover, fired from his teaching post and passed over for a genius grant. Richard's sex-fiend father (Alan Arkin) has just been kicked out of a posh nursing home for heroin use and, presumably, getting too randy with the female senior citizens. And Richard and Sheryl's teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano), a Nietzsche fanatic, hates his family and hasn't spoken a word in six months.

And then there's little Olive (Abigail Breslin), a perpetually gushing fountain of optimism who seems oblivious to the misery of those around her. A sweet, sensitive girl of seven, she's focused on becoming a prepubescent beauty queen, even though her body shape, aversion to makeup and lack of pageant savvy would seemingly doom her to last place in any major competition of this sort. But when circumstances lead to her being selected to compete in the "Little Miss Sunshine" contest in California, the family members, not wanting to let her down, all pile into their rusty yellow van and head west.

Yes, Little Miss Sunshine is yet another road picture about bickering family members, and if that sounds a bit too prefab (or at least a bit too RV), screenwriter Michael Arndt, his dialogue getting the necessary backing by the excellent ensemble cast, manages to adroitly mix up the expected comic shtick with moments of great clarity and insight. Many of the gags are familiar though still reasonably funny: the transport of a corpse, a frantic race to reach the pageant site in time, some business involving smut rags. But the movie's forte rests in the segments in which characters are allowed to relate to themselves, to other family members and to the world surrounding them. Frank, for instance, plainly tells Olive that he tried to kill himself because he was unhappy, but by the end of the film, after it's suggested (this movie respects the audience enough not to spell everything out) that he can learn and draw strength from the nuts around him, even he would admit that the suicide attempt was a mistake. Dwayne, meanwhile, appears to seethe nothing but contempt not only for his family but for society in general (in one amusing scene, forced to choose between listening to his parents argue and listening to George W. Bush spout nonsense on the TV, he decides his folks' fighting is the lesser of two evils). Yet when his mother has an emotional breakdown, he orders (via notepad and pen) Olive to "Go hug Mom."

The movie climaxes as it surely must -- at the "Little Miss Sunshine" competition. Arndt and the husband-and-wife directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris sharpen their claws for this portion, depicting prepubescent beauty pageants as grotesque spectacles in which tiny girls are encouraged by their parents to pose as sexual predators experienced at shaking their butts, lasciviously licking their lips and applying more makeup than even a 60-year-old trollop trying to conceal her age. Without giving too much away, let's just say that Olive's talent act single-handedly upends her rivals' routines while simultaneously exposing the hypocrisy of the whole enterprise. The entire family, in fact, comes together to engage in an act of flagrant punk defiance. Joey Ramone would have been proud.

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