Reviewed by

Bud Carlson

“Little Miss Sunshine.”  “Better Than Expected” and “Upside Surprise” are the first things to come into my mind.

Before I go see a movie, I usually try to do some homework about it. I try to read some production notes, or read or watch an interview with the director. I try not to read things that will bias my judgment about the film (like I didn’t watch Tom Cruise on Oprah before seeing Mission Impossible 3, for example). Instead, I try to get access to something that will give me a little bit of context for the movie. Something to remove the spectacle of the film for me, so that I can focus on what is important: characters, plot, dialogue, cinematography, that type of stuff.  I have found this advance work to be especially important with indie films, as you never really know what you’re gonna get with them. So for a reviewer, context is good, preconceptions are bad. 
Going into “Little Miss Sunshine,” I must admit that I hadn’t done a darn bit of that homework on it. I had seen the preview for it (over and over and over again), and saw that Greg Kinnear was billed to be the star of the movie. To be honest, I am not a fan of Mr. Kinnear’s work, so I didn’t really hold out a lot of hope for this movie. 

However, after seeing a screening of “Little Miss Sunshine,” I will readily admit that I had vastly underestimated this movie, in terms of not just its indie-quirkiness, but also its underlying humor and sweetness as well as.  About the only thing I hadn’t underestimated was Mr. Kinnear’s inability to put together a good performance, but fortunately the film didn’t suffer for it.

“Little Miss Sunshine” is a glimpse into the life of the Hoovers, a middle-class family living in Albuquerque, that has a myriad of problems.  Richard (Kinnear), the father, is a wanna-be motivational speaker who is having trouble getting his enterprise off the ground. Sheryl (Toni Collette), the mother, has her act together and tries to do her best for the family, but her gay college professor brother Frank (Steve Carell), America’s most highly-regarded Proust scholar, has just attempted suicide. Richard’s father (Alan Arkin) has been evicted from a retirement home for use of illegal drugs, and let’s just say that his moral compass seems not to point due north, if you know what I mean. Daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) is an awkwardly-pudgy and plain-looking seven-year-old who wears glasses that don’t fit her, but who dreams of being Ms America and wants to enter beauty pageants. Her brother Dwayne (Paul Dano) is 15, reads Nietzsche, and has decided to take a vow of utter silence until he gets into the Air Force Academy; he’s got nothing to say to his messed-up relatives anyway.  The movie really kicks-in when the six Hoovers all get on board the family’s old VW camper to head to California, where Olive has been invited to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. 

This is not the Brady Bunch, folks. There’s not a lot of peace, love, and good happiness stuff in this one. This is a comedy of angst, with bitter dark laughs that really contrast sharply with the movie’s eventual “families gotta stick together” conclusion. But boy oh boy, is it funny.  In my mind, the humor stems from the movie’s characters all being weird and eccentric people, who do weird and eccentric things, without even an afterthought that their actions were weird or eccentric. Doing things that are odd or unusual seems totally natural to them. Think about “Napoleon Dynamite” a very different type of movie, but the humor there was also derived from the odd-ness of the characters and the fact that those characters didn’t recognize their actions as being odd at all. Really good, well-written and well-acted stuff!

I don’t think this movie will end up being a classic at all (and I don’t mean to compare it to Napoleon Dynamite in that regard), but it sure was fun to watch.

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