Original Review Date: 8/2006
Little Miss Sunshine is a film filled well written, interesting characters and numerous memorable moments. The characters within Sunshine are real, flawed people who exist in a dysfunctional family where their personal quirks are exasperated. The father and patriarch of the family, Richard (Greg Kinnear), is a self help guru who uses his lectures and the materials he petals on his own family ad nauseam. His family has grown used to the bombardment, evidenced by the haggard expressions on their face whenever he starts spouting rhetoric. The mother, Sheryl (Toni Collette), is what you expect in this type of film, a mediator who is very compassionate to all the needs of the people around her, especially her competitive daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin).
Olive is a little girl who participates in beauty competitions. In a previous contest she placed second but when the first place winner defaults, she is given the crown and the privilege to enter the upcoming Little Miss Sunshine contest. Sheryl and Olive can’t afford plane tickets so they decide to drive to California for the contest in their 1979 Volks-Wagon Mini-Van, equipped with a stick shift and barely operational clutch. Sheryl is bad when it comes to driving a stick shift so Richard volunteers to drive them. Since Olive’s hilarious grandfather, Grandpa (Alan Arkin), taught her all of her dance routine moves, he insists of coming along.
Not everyone in the family wants to go to California, including Olive’s engaging older brother Dwayne (Paul Dano), who insists on staying behind. Dwayne is quite easily the most interesting character in all of Little Miss Sunshine, being a disciple of Frederick Nietzsche and having taken a vow of silence until he completes his goal of entering the Air Force to become a test pilot. Dwayne is so focused on his goal that he makes himself do push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups on a regular basis as prep for the rigors of “basic training” and only communicates to the outside world through written notepad messages. It’s only when his mother barters with him about flight school that he finally agrees to go to California. And then there is Sheryl’s Proust scholar brother Frank (Steve Carell). When unfortunate circumstances collide in Frank’s life, he fails in an attempt to commit suicide and is subsequently released by the hospital into his sister’s care so that he can be supervised and cared for while he recovers.
Before the road trip in Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s Little Miss Sunshine commences, the main characters are established but it is during the trip that they are rounded out, given full room to breathe and the actors space to perform. During the trip, elements of certain characters lives are brought to light, shenanigans ensue and real life tragedies occur. I won’t give away what happens in the last two-thirds of Sunshine because they are a treat and should not be spoiled. I will mention that what Grandpa says about young girls to Dwayne is classic and one of the funniest moments in the movie hands down. Little Miss Sunshine is a well made film that works as both a drama and a dark comedy. Neither genre treads too heavily on the other in this film but rather they find a way to work together as a composite or a team to the full benefit of Little Miss Sunshine and all who view it.