This is my jam. A movie I can watch again and again and it never gets old. It’s well-constructed and absorbing and there’s always some small detail to catch and enjoy.
The Hoovers are having a hard time. Sheryl brings her suicidal brother Frank to her home where he’s scarcely the most damaged. Frank (Steve Carell) has just been rejected by his lover and is suffering from acute profession angst as he watches his rival in Proustian studies get recognized while his own work languishes. Sheryl (Toni Collette) takes him in but barely has a thought to spare for him, poor guy, no matter how fresh the bandages on his wrists are. Her husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) has a self-help technique for attaining success that nobody wants. He’s a loser, and his starry-eyed confidence is waning by the minute. Their teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence. He can’t wait to leave his family behind to pursue his dream of becoming a pilot. Dwayne’s grandpa Edwin (Alan Arkin) has just been kicked out of his retirement residence for selling (and taking) drugs. The family’s a mess, and Sheryl’s beginning to feel emotionally bankrupt, so it’s under these circumstances that the family rallies around its youngest member, Olive (Abigail Breslin). Olive may be an unlikely candidate for the beauty pageant circuit but she’s an enthusiastic one. On a whim, the family decides to leave their troubles behind and hit the road from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, California, in pursuit of little Olive’s dream of pageant glory.
Little Miss Sunshine is about dreams, and I guess, their inverse – illusions. This family of fuck ups needs so badly for one goddamned thing to go right. But for some of us, happiness, or contentment, needs to be found in small moments of unity. Triumph found in trying. Not everyone is a winner at life, and that’s what makes this film so funny, and so heart breaking. It’s what makes it feel real despite some increasingly absurd twists of fate.
Family dynamics are made clear to us during a long scene around a bucket of KFC. My goodness. Toni Collette has long been a favourite of mine but she’s determined with each performance to win me over again, astonishing me with her willingness to let ego go and embrace the honest dregs of each character. Steve Carell was an unknown when they cast him, and producers worried that he wasn’t famous enough to help their little movie along. But in the short time between filming and the movie’s release, Carell burst onto the scene in a star-making turn in the 40 Year Old Virgin, and then introduced himself to all of America as everyone’s favourite boss on The Office. He is quiet and introspective in Little Miss Sunshine, but his underplayed pain and ennui have a presence that take up space in the family’s forever breaking down VW bus. Little Abigail Breslin did not make her acting debut in Little Miss Sunshine (she was in 2002’s Signs) but she did become the first person born in the 90s to get a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod for her role; she was 10 at the time. She lost but Alan Arkin won in his category. His snatching of the Oscar from Mark Wahlberg was the only one of 5 categories that The Departed lost that night.
This family’s dysfunction is perhaps a little more urgent and layered than most, but almost everyone can see a slice of their own family somewhere in this script. We laugh, we cry, we have a good time, and we leave better people because we’ve witnessed someone’s pain and empathized.