Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, 2006)
The Hoovers, the family that represents America in Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' debut feature Little Miss Sunshine is the typical quirky dysfunctional type. It's the same type of normal-looking family that is hiding deeply-rooted skeletons underneath its normal (even commendible) exteriors that has populated American independent cinema these recent years. It's one of the few to actually get a popular buzz (which might eventually translate to awards like its darker cousins, In the Bedroom (Todd Field, 2001), American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999), or The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001). Little Miss Sunshine is also a road movie --- also a genre that indie filmmakers love to exploit (Transamerica (Duncan Tucker, 2005), The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, 2004), Y Tu Mama Tambien (Alfonso Cuaron, 2001)). Lastly, as its title implies, the film also involves beauty pageants; in this case, a beauty pageant involving little girls all dolled up beyond recognition.
The family is clearly dysfunctional; its members are even more problematic. The father Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker who is banking all the family's savings on a book deal regarding his invented "9 steps to success." The mother Sheryl (Toni Collette) tries too hardly to pull her family together. The grandfather Edwin (Alan Arkin) spends the last days of his life sniffing heroin and regretting his lack of sexual conquests. The son Dwayne (Paul Dano) has pledged to never speak until he gets accepted into the Air Academy. The daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) has dedicated her young life to beauty pageants. When homosexual genius Frank (Steve Carell) is release from the hospital (he survives a suicide attempt) and is received by the Hoover household, the dysfunctional family attains completion. The chemistry achieved is deliriously fun: ultra-macho war veteran with his politically incorrect statement, perpetually depressed homosexual failure dampens the already damped family atmosphere, ultra-optimistic Olive is spoiled by the warring ideologies of both father and mother, reclusive Dwayne speaks through scribbled notes.
That magic of Little Miss Sunshine is what keeps the film chugging from its morosely dull narrative. The plot is merely a string of overlapping disappointments subsequently being discovered as the family tries to catch Olive's weekend pageant in California on their also-dysfunctional Volkswagen mini-bus. The episodes do have a unique blend of humor and tragedy in them; that humor is then overstretched a bit to the film's ultimate disadvantage. I feel that the filmmakers are trying to be Wes Anderson-quirky but what is ultimately achieved is merely crowd-pleasing. It is that conventional crowd-pleasing element that might satisfy typical moviegoers and those who might need something more challenging.
Overall, Little Miss Sunshine is cinema that rejoices disappointments. Bursts of emotions do not grow out from life-altering and winning experiences, but from those that brand upon the family members the inevitability of mediocrity. The beauty pageant assures that celebration of disappointment: the father watches each and every child contestant battle it out with their talents and discerns that his daughter is not the winner he expects from her. He tries to pull her out, but the optimistic Olive insists with the talent routine her grandfather taught her. Her talent show is the slogan of the film: the entire family joins in as their favorite member gyrates and proclaims to the entire world that this is all they can do, nothing more. They have no more pretenses of sure steps to success, no more dreams of grandeur, or romantic conquests, or even the normalcy of a steady familial life. All they can do is gyrate. They're still the same individuals in the end, but something happened, a little revelation. In a way, the Hoovers have become less dysfunctional with the realization that they are dysfunctional.