Pros: Direction, Script, Look, Locations, Score, & Cast.
The Sundance Film Festival has always been known for finding new talents and films that eventually became a hit or more. In the past ten years, films like Boys Don't Cry, Secretary, Donnie Darko, thirteen, American Splendor, Garden State, Primer, and last year's The Squid & the Whale would get exposure not just from critics but box office and sometimes, would lead to awards. This year's Sundance was no different as movies from unknown film directors would come out to get exposed and win prizes. One little film was a quirky little road movie from husband & wife team of Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris who have been known for directing music videos, notably the award-winning Tonight, Tonight by the Smashing Pumpkins. The little movie that is already scoring big in the box office and with critics is known as Little Miss Sunshine.
Written by Michael Arndt and directed by Dayton/Faris, Little Miss Sunshine tells the story of a young girl whose chance to enter a beauty pageant comes true as her dysfunctional family including a drug-addicted grandfather and a suicidal gay uncle join in. The family goes on a road trip that is filled with chaos and everything as the family tries to stay together to get the little girl into a pageant. Starring Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carrell, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, Beth Grant, and Alan Arkin. Little Miss Sunshine continues the tradition as being one of the year's runaway hits from the world of Sundance.
It's a very dysfunctional day in a family household in Albuquerque, New Mexico as a working housewife named Sheryl (Toni Collette) is bringing home her brother Frank (Steve Carrell) who has just recovered from a failed suicide attempt. Meanwhile, Sheryl's husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) is trying to score a deal to release a book that will help his job as a local motivational speaker. Still, he has a dysfunctional family to live with as his stepson Dwayne (Paul Dano) has become obsessed with Nietzsche and has not spoken in nine months in a vow of silence. Also living in the house is Richard's father (Alan Arkin) who has just been kicked out of a retirement home after snorting heroin as he is trying to teach dance steps to his granddaughter Olive (Abigail Breslin). Olive is still hoping to compete in a beauty pageant in California despite being second place at a local one. Then one day during dinner, Sheryl received a call that the winner of the local pageant has given up her crown and Olive has a chance to go to California to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine contest.
Richard isn't excited since he is trying to get a deal with his publisher Stan Grossman (Bryan Cranston) while Sheryl feels that the family should go to support her. With the grandfather coming along, Frank and Dwayne reluctantly join as Frank is in suicide watch after being fired from his college as a professor and is recovering from a relationship with another man. Dwayne ends up going as Sheryl makes him a deal to give him money so he can go to the Air Force Academy. Taking their old Volkswagen van-bus from New Mexico to California, the family makes way on their trip despite being short on funds. Richard's motivation and claims that people who use sarcasm are losers as he claims that Frank is a failure and he's a winner. Still, Richard's ideals often bother the family during a lunch where he tells Olive that beauty queens don't eat ice cream because of the fat along with the fact Olive doesn't have a great body in comparison to other 7-year old girls.
When Sheryl wants to take turns to drive the van, despite not knowing how to use stick shift, the van goes into a bit of trouble as they get help from a mechanic (Julio Oscar Mechoso). Richard still awaits a call from Stan about some news as he learns he's in Scottsdale along the way where the call he gets is bad news during a stop. Around that same time, Frank meets his ex-boyfriend Josh (Justin Shilton) who is now going out with Frank's rival Larry Sugarman (Gordon Thomson). The news that Richard has been rejected only furthers troubles the shaky marriage he has with Sheryl where they stay for the night. Richard goes to Scottsdale on a motorbike to try to talk to Stan where he learns the full reason for the rejection as Richard's claims of being winner comes crashing down as he feels that no one cares about him.
After another troubling setback, the family move on to the road where the tension and chaos surrounding the family as Dwayne finally explodes into a full emotional breakdown. Olive was the one to comfort him as they continue to Redondo Beach for the pageant as they have to contend with a snooty pageant official named Jenkins (Beth Grant) where Olive finally gets to enter. With Frank and Dwayne unable to deal with the cheeriness of the young girls beauty pageant, they set off as Sheryl helps out Olive with her look and costume while Richard tries to deal with some things. Olive has her own problems since she doesn't look as flashy or physically superior to the other girls but with the support of her entire family, she decides to knock the competition dead on their feet.
The genre of the road movies in recent years have been in a decline due to changing climate of the American culture yet the one thing road movies don't change is the spontaneous and not-knowing what will happen on the road. While some of it could be compared to National Lampoon's Vacation in terms of situations, tension, and humor. Unlike Vacation, it's more heartwarming since the comedy is mixed with drama about a family that is very dysfunctional. Despite their personalities and issues, they do care each other and they all go on this road trip for one person who is the most innocent one around which is Olive. Writer Michael Arndt creates a great script that is filled with a lot of funny and heartwarming moments while staying true to the road film genre that has something family could watch despite some innuendos and the language.
Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris help create that spontaneity of the road film by adding a lot of situations like a family pushing the van while running after it to get in or the repeated honks of it. They also give each character something to do while dealing with their own situations as when they together, it works. When it comes to the comedy, it's very natural and often deadpan from the likes of Carrell and Dano who play the more miserable personalities dealing with their own situations. Then when the third act comes for the world of young little beauty pageants. It shows a world that can be very discomforting, even with the recent event concerning the Jon Benet murder 10 years ago. Still, Dayton & Faris don't exactly make fun of it nor take it totally serious as they show what it is and how people react to it. Overall, they created a wonderfully funny, heartfelt film that brings in a lot of caring moments and huge laughs.
Helping out Dayton/Faris in their visual presentation is cinematographer Tim Suhrstedt whose color schemes of yellow highlight the American Southwest of its vast deserts while the interiors have some nice, grainy shades of blue as the film is wonderfully shot to convey the vastness of the road. Production designer Kalina Ivanov along with art director Alan E. Muraoka and set decorator Melissa M. Lavender do great job in capturing the realism of the dysfunctional family home while doing a great job on the design of the pageant in all of its cheesy glory. Costume designer Nancy Steiner does great work in presenting the bland clothing of the adults with the exception of Alan Arkins character while giving Paul Dano some cool t-shirts to wear while the real standout in the clothing goes to Abigail Breslin from the headbands, the boots, and everything including her costume.
Editor Pamela Martin does some great work in the editing playing to the rhythm of a road film with some jump cuts and perspective cutting to convey what the characters feeling while giving time for a specific scene. Sound editor Stephen P. Robinson and mixer Steven Morrow also do great work in conveying the humor of the film, particularly the honking of the van-bus which makes everything funny. Composer Mychael Danna along with the group Devotchka create a whimsical, offbeat score that also includes music by Sulfjan Steven and some beauty pageant music that is cheesy with the exception of an 80s funk classic.
Finally, there's the film's great cast that includes some funny small performances from Geoff Meed as a biker, Dean Norris as a state trooper, Robert J. Connor as the pageant host, Mary Lynn Rajskub as a pageant official, Julio Oscar Mechoso as a mechanic, and the incomparable Beth Grant in a very funny performance as a pageant official. Other notable minor roles from Bryan Cranston as Stan Grossman and Justin Shilton as Josh are excellent in their brief appearances to convey the problems for the respective characters of Richard and Frank. Of the main cast, no one conveys the showiness of comedy better than Alan Arkin as the grandfather. Arkin brings all of the troubling and discomforting innuendos of a drug-addict grandfather who says all the wrong things that disturbs the family while being very supportive of Olive as he teaches her to dance as Arkin brings all the right humor. Paul Dano gives probably his best performance to date as the moody Dwayne where in the film's first half, Dano brings a lot of humor with the things he writes in a notepad while not saying anything. When Dano breaks down, he channels a lot of angst while he has great chemistry with Steve Carrell.
Steve Carrell proves his comedic genius by going into minimalism as he plays a moody, quiet suicidal professor who brings a lot of funny moments by doing so little and not saying much. Carrell, like Bill Murray who was considered for the role, proves that showiness doesn't have to be the only way to be funny as Carrell brings a lot of depth to a character who is going through a lot of troubles and frustration as its one of his best performances. Greg Kinnear also proves his brilliance as an actor in comedy and drama as a man filled with irony as someone who talks about winning but is really a total loser. Kinnear brings a lot of struggle and depth to a man who tries his best for his family but ends up saying the wrong things and tries to find ways to do right as Kinnear proves himself to be a very versatile actor.
If Dano and Carrell brings misery, Arkin brings misogyny, and Kinnear brings a straightforwardness, Toni Collette is the glue that brings everyone together. The Australian actress who knows how to pull off an American accent is great as the maternal figure of the family who tries to get everyone back on their feet while dealing with frustration of their dysfunctions. Collette also shines in being the normal one of the family as she stands out with her comedic talents and drama as she brings out another great performance. If Collette is the glue that keeps the cast together, it's the young Abigail Breslin who is the heart of the movie. Breslin steals the show as the optimistic Olive whose chance to compete for a beauty pageant comes true. Breslin brings a lot of depth to a young girl wanting to have her family on her side despite their dysfunctions while dealing with her own physical features as it's the family that supports her. Breslin is the real breakthrough as she proves her worth in every scene, especially her dance in the competition as she knocks everyone dead. Move over Dakota Fanning, there's a new little girl in town!
Little Miss Sunshine is truly one of 2006's biggest surprises thanks to the talents of Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, writer Michael Arndt, and a superb cast. Already becoming a runaway hit, this movie has provided the kind of alternative to the already overwhelming array of blockbusters. Thanks to some funny moments, tender family scenes, and something that audiences can relate to, this movie is truly a gem coming from Sundance. For a little movie with a lot of laughs, heart, and a dancing white family, Little Miss Sunshine is the film to watch.