It’s unsurprising that this little gem got picked up at last years Sundance as it has the all-round warmth to surely reach any faction of the audience. Now a Best Picture hopeful at the Oscars, Little Miss Sunshine has matured from indie arthouse flick to widely acclaimed pic and, whilst I wouldn’t go as far as to say Oscar-worthy, it’s certainly deserving if its praise.
Little Miss Sunshine is essentially a road trip film, and one which has packed its bags of charm for the journey. We follow the dysfunctional (but stubbornly objective) Hoover family as they make the several-hundred mile trek from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to none other than the sunshine state of California, home of every aspiring young girl’s American Dream. Their goal is the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, the crown of which young Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) dreams of winning.
As well as establishing character and premise, introductory scenes show we’re in store for a breezily sharp script and top, likable performances if nothing else in this film. The opening dinner scene sets up the dysfunctional dynamic as we are introduced to the hassled Hoovers and their individual idiosyncrasies. Head Hoover, Richard (Greg Kinnear), is a motivational speaker-turned dream-hawker whose world categorically divides into two sections: Winners and Losers. Wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) tirelessly rallies the troops and only seems to dream of maintaining a familial plateau of stability. Paul Dano is Dwayne, a Nietzsche-reading 15-year old admirably maintaining a vow of silence until his dreams are realised (a winning success of sorts in the eyes of his father), and big brother to baby Hoover, Olive. Extending the family is depressed scholar who’s lost the dream, Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), and foul-mouthed but knowing old-timer who’s lived his own dream, Grandpa (Alan Arkin).
Watching Little Miss Sunshine reminded me of another family-on-the-road comedy/drama, the Argentinian Familia Rodante (that's Rolling Family, not my hoped-for Rodent Family, more was the pity), though the comparison highly favours the American release. Where Familia Rodante depended on the brand of World Cinema, where it was on the wrong side of the fine line between slightness and charm, Little Miss Sunshine adds substance to these sensibilities. Husband and wife helmers, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, make their debut an impressive one in their move from music video to feature film. Some might find their refusal to pointedly focus their commentary frustrating, though I found its decision not to force feed any blunt morality refreshing. The hilarious finale does, though, take an ingenious swipe at a rather distasteful side of American Culture. Michael Arndt’s rightfully Oscar-nominated warm and witty script gives the cast the right tools to sculpt equally warm and easily likeable performances. Carell (The 40 Year Old Virgin) is perfect as troubled intellectual, Frank, whilst Kinnear does a nice turn in hectically exasperated. Dano, also, puts in pretty mean performance when you consider he says nothing for the large majority of the film, while Colette seems a little underused. But it’s Arkin and Breslin who secured the Academy nominations for their performances in support roles, with Arkin delivering cheekily cantankerous with perfect timing and Breslin a natural in a role that allowed a kid to be a kid. But there’s more than wry dialogue and it’s expert delivery here. An unassumingly subtle visual style and a very European-sounding score reflect the film’s quirky, feel-good nature and aid the World Cinema feel. And that's the crux of why this film works, that it mixes the easy-going, idiosyncratic traits of foreign film whilst accurately subverting American cultural neuroses. In this case, a winning formula.
World Cinema meets Americana for a happily workable mix, resulting in a charming and funny film that's not shy of a critique 9/10