In the great American pantheon of comedic cinema, special distinction seems to be reserved for the dysfunctional family. From National Lampoon’s Griswolds to Wes Anderson’s Tenenbaums, moviegoers are often eager to witness the hilarious exploits of the outrageously eccentric. Every year audiences are introduced to (and asked to laugh at, identify with, and enthusiastically embrace) an ever-expanding stable of dysfunctional fictional characters and their kin.
Too often the only thing funny about these genre films is how laughably insipid the majority of them are. That is why the 2006 Sundance Film festival hit Little Miss Sunshine is such a wonderful and charming surprise. On its surface this film would seem to be indistinguishable from any number of dysfunctional family/road trip movies. But with the winning trifecta of great acting, keen writing, and strong direction Little Miss Sunshine easily manages to transcend its formulaic premise. With their gentle air of loving insouciance, the Hoover clan seem poised to join the upper ranks of cinema’s great comedy families.
When we first meet the Hoovers they are caught in the perilous throes of personal, professional, and familial stasis. The unexpected arrival of a distant uncle has added not only an extra family member to their ranks, but also seems to have tipped the balance of their strained and tousled family life.
Sheryl (Toni Collette), the loving and sensible, albeit overstressed and long-suffering, mother and wife of the Hoover clan, dutifully collects her brother, Frank (Steve Carrell), from a local hospital. Frank, the preeminent Proust scholar in America, whose failed romance with one of his male graduate students (who indignantly left him for America’s number two Proust scholar) wound up in the hospital due to an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Upon release, he is forced to move in with his sister and her family. No one is thrilled by this turn of events and both Frank and Sheryl resign themselves to their new situation.
Clearly over burdened and strained for resources, Sheryl implicitly delegates partial responsibility for Frank’s care to her teenage son, Dwayne (Paul Dano). The wisdom of pairing a suicidally depressed academic with a brooding teenage disciple of Nietzsche who has decided to take a vow of silence until he’s accepted into the Air Force Academy, is dubious, at best. Yet this dour twosome is immediately (although reluctantly) relatable, and their relationship provides a wonderfully dry counterpoint to the more manic members of the Hoover family.
Undoubtedly the most eccentric member of the family is Grandpa Hoover (Alan Arkin). A porn loving, heroin snorting, and thoroughly sex obsessed septuagenarian, Grandpa has recently been kicked out of his retirement community and is now living with his son and family. To keep busy he has taken on the role of dance coach to his seven-year-old granddaughter, Olive (Abigail Breslin), who is obsessed with beauty pageants. Constantly training, Olive dreams of one day being crowned a beauty queen. Her oversized glasses and ever-widening eyes can barely contain the boundless enthusiasm and endearing innocence she holds.
Olive’s (seemingly) infinite optimism is readily encouraged by her father, Richard (Greg Kinnear), an astonishingly unsuccessful motivational speaker who is desperately trying to sell and franchise his book, Refuse to Lose. Richard’s personal devotion to the dictates and ethos of his chosen trade means he remains inflexibly positive. Despite his mounting failures, both personal and professional, he continues to fight for his future success. To the point of boiling rage, Richard is obsessed with achievement and being viewed — by the world, by his family, maybe even by himself — as a winner. It is, in part, this desire to win (at anything) that prompts Richard to agree to the road trip which will deliver his daughter to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant and possible victory.
Packing their bags, resentments, fears, and hopes into a rundown ’60s yellow VW bus, the Hoovers head off on their 700-mile journey from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Redondo Beach, California. Naturally, the family encounters its fair share of bumps on the road. No road movie is complete without car trouble and the Hoovers are no exception. In a hilarious and sustained physical joke Sheryl, Frank, Grandpa, and the kids are all forced to push (and then jump on) the van in order to keep the vehicle in gear and running.
One of the clichés of road movies is that the journey is always more fulfilling than the destination, and that is certainly the case here, as well. For it is only upon arrival at the child’s beauty pageant that the Hoovers realize the error of trying to conform, compete, and win in so hollow an arena. Garish, tacky, vulgar, and uncomfortably smug, the Little Miss Sunshine competition embodies all that is wrong with mass culture and its adherents. In a playful (if somewhat strained) bit of slapstick, the Hoovers are finally liberated, as individuals and as a family, through their rejection of such false success.
Both the filmmakers and the cast are smart enough to recognize that humor rarely comes from a joke’s punch line. The hilarity of the broken down VW bus sequences comes not from the visual gag but, rather, from each characters’ quiet reaction to both its utterly sublime stupidity and the inherent cruelty of its metaphor. Great comedy often does come from pain, but Little Miss Sunshine is confident in the knowledge that the sting of biting sarcasm can sometimes heal.
Stellar casting, confident writing, and deft direction all contribute in the elevation of Little Miss Sunshine, from comic banality to an original and refreshingly joyful cinematic treat.
All six actors shine in richly layered and graceful performances that never betray their individual character’s truth, vulnerability, or humanity. Michael Arndt’s well-crafted script allows for the narrative to flow effortlessly from a relaxed naturalness to sheer absurdity without skipping a beat. And with the assured and unforced direction of (the husband and wife team of) Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris the film remains thoughtful, engaging, and side-splittingly hilarious.
Luckily for fans eager to learn more about the making of this film, there is an interesting commentary track by Dayton, Faris, and Arndt included in the DVD. Other supplements on the disc include four alternative endings, trailers, and a music video by the band DeVotchka. Little Miss Sunshine is that rare comedic film that earns its laughs through textured characterizations and authentic, humanizing contradictions. It is a generous, affirmative, and truly funny film that should not be missed.