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Little Miss Sunshine

A Dysfunctional Family Worth Spending Time With

Written by Michael Arndt and helmed by first-time feature directors (and husband-and-wife team) Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Little Miss Sunshine turns out to be the exception to a lackluster 2006 Sundance Film Festival. An indie-produced family comedy/drama centered on a road trip to a beauty pageant, Little Miss Sunshine mostly lives up to the hype, thanks to a stellar cast, including Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, and Alan Arkin, plus relative newcomers, Abigail Breslin and Paul Dano. While the premise suggests easy, even cheap, sentimentality, the film takes the less-traveled, more scenic road to get to its final images of reconciliation.

Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear), a struggling motivational speaker/author hoping to break into paying gigs, speaking tours, etc., has mortgaged the family’s finances in exchange for his dream. Sheryl (Toni Collette), Richard’s wife, worries about the rapidly dwindling nest egg, but more importantly, keeping her dysfunctional family together. Dwayne (Paul Dano), Richard and Sheryl’s surly, Nietzsche-loving teenage son, has taken a vow of silence until he gains admission into the Air Force (Dwayne dreams of becoming a pilot). Olive (Abigail Breslin), Richard and Sheryl’s pre-teen daughter, has a dream of her own, to win a beauty pageant. Olive has entered and won second-place in a local contest. Richard’s father (Alan Arkin) has moved in with his son’s family after being thrown out of his nursing home. Sheryl’s brother, Frank (Steve Carell), a Proust scholar whose life has taken a turn for the work, also moves in.

As Richard awaits news of a book contract from his agent, Olive gets a call informing her that she’s been chosen to participate in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest in Redondo Beach, California. With finances tight, Frank suicidal, Grandpa ornery and unreliable (and both needing constant supervision), Richard and Sheryl decide to take the entire family on a two-plus day road trip in their beat-up, rundown VW bus. An event-laden road trip follows, with the Hoovers forced to face intra-family and personal issues, car trouble, and several life-changing events. With a deadline for registration fast approaching, the Hoovers have to find a way to overcome their difficulties and make it to Redondo Beach on time.

Despite its indie cred, the early buzz at the Sundance Film Festival, a top-notch cast, note-perfect performances, and tight direction, Little Miss Sunshine does have a few flaws worth noting, all of them related to Michael Arndt’s script. Arndt can’t help but include a heavy-handed, “we’re family and have to stick together” moment heavily underlined by dialogue. Arndt would have done better with a dialogue-free scene that trusted the audience. The fate of one character mid-journey also sends Little Miss Sunshine into familiar, slapstick- and pathos-heavy territory, but that’s a minor quibble. There’s a larger problem with the movie that undermines an otherwise pitch-perfect film.

In a family of eccentric, depressive or otherwise screwed up characters, one character stands out as unconvincing: Dwayne. Dwayne's a typically anti-authoritarian teenager who apparently hates his family. So far, so good, right? What really strains credulity is Dwayne’s goal to become not just a pilot, a dream many children share, but an Air Force pilot. Given his intense dislike for his family and the relative lack of freedom he has, why would he trade one rule-bound, authoritarian structure for another? Even without the support from his cash-poor parents, the non-conformist Dwayne would find some other way to become a pilot.

Dwayne’s goal and motivation might seem like a minor problem, but it’s enough to bring Little Miss Sunshine down a notch or two from the nearly great to the flawed. That doesn’t mean that Little Miss Sunshine isn’t worth seeing. In a summer season thick with formulaic blockbusters and romantic comedies, a family comedy/drama that takes a few risks, takes a few, non-formulaic plot turns (even if it ends up exactly where we expect and want it to) while skewering everything from motivational programs, to academia and pre-teen beauty pageants, Little Miss Sunshine deserves the widest exposure possible.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars