On paper, Little Miss Sunshine plays like a joke with a punch line no one wants to hear. What do you get when you take a failed inspirational speaker, a suicidal Proust scholar, a heroin addicted grandfather, a depressed teenager, and a driven to the edge mother and her daughter, pack them all in a Volkswagen van, and send them traveling to California for a beauty pageant? Well, in anyone else’s hands, a formulaic, predictable film in which life lessons are learned and everything is wrapped up in a neat, little bow. However, in the hands of husband and wife directors, Johnathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, using a first time script by Michael Arndt, the result is a moving, hilarious and raw examination of family who can’t stand each other, but need each other all the same.
Blessed with an astonishing ensemble performance by a cast that includes Steve Carell (who steps comfortably into a dramatic role without the baggage that someone like Robin Williams brings to similar endeavors), Alan Arkin, Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette, Little Miss Sunshine is ostensibly about a wacky trip to a beauty pageant for six and seven year olds. But in taking us there, it tackles with honesty and clarity the dreams that sustain these characters, as well as the lies they tell themselves to keep going, avoid reality and dodge the pain of failure. Dayton and Faris get all the details, big and small, with a bull’s-eye precision. From an opening scene at the dinner table, in which mismatched plates and cups are set out for a take-out fried chicken dinner, to a remarkably touching sequence in a diner in which the family convinces a weight concerned, potential beautiful queen, to eat her ice cream, the directors keep the film from slipping into contrived emotions or obvious showdowns.
Little Miss Sunshine offers the kind of movie experience that is extremely rare at the summer multiplex. It traverses its territory and treats its audience with intelligence and caring, offering huge laughs and equally sized tears. You will leave the theatre fulfilled, not because these characters all meet happy endings, but because sometimes life is complicated, shitty, hilarious and unpredictable—something that Dayton and Faris got completely right.