Dec 31, 2010

Movie Review # 5 - Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

"Losers are people who are so afraid of not winning, they don't even try."

Little Miss Sunshine is about nothing and everything. The story is catapulted by the determination of the bankrupt Hoover family to get their daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) to the finals of a beauty pageant in California. This embarks the whole family on a series of events as they journey across the country in a yellow VW bus. The dad, Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear), is a failed motivational speaker who is desperately trying to pitch his "9 steps to success" concept, which basically divides people into two categories: winners and losers. His wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette), is a stay-at-home mom who agrees to look after her gay brother Frank (Steve Carell), a Proust scholar who recently had a failed suicide attempt when he was rejected by his boyfriend and lost his #1 spot in his domain to a competitor. Grandpa Edwin (Alan Arkin) is an extremely vulgar old man and a heroin addict who was kicked out of the retirement residence Sunset Manor for his scandalous behavior. Olive's older brother Dwayne (Paul Dano) is a fifteen-year-old who has taken a vow of silence as a follower of the great philosopher Nietzsche, and whose ambition is to become a jet pilot. Throughout the film, these misunderstood characters are deeply explored and we begin to find out who they truly are.

The opening of the film is sensational. Olive is watching a beauty pageant on TV, and inspiration fills her eyes as she uses the remote to play back the winner's reaction. I'm not sure if this was this was the movie's intention, but these few seconds really hit me hard. It made me realize just how superficial the world is today, and how little girls have so much pressure to look "beautiful", with underweight models appearing on all kinds of billboards and magazines their eyes must absorb everyday. This scene is intercut with a ton of other scenes introducing all the characters. Dad is presenting his theory to a small, miserable audience while Dwayne is going through his daily workout routine in his bedroom. Grandpa is snorting a bit of the old cocaine while Mom goes to pick up Uncle Frank at the hospital. The movie's sense of humor is revealed with the strong sense of irony displayed by the showing of the title. The words "Little Miss Sunshine" appear on the screen as Uncle Frank miserably and sorrowfully looks at us. This whole opening is also backed up by an uplifting, inspirational score by Mychael Danna and DeVotchKa-- it has an "indie" quality that goes very well with the movie.

Little Miss Sunshine has some of the best character development I've ever seen. It's on the same level as American Beauty in that sense, and in many other senses. Both movies are also hilarious, because they have a very serious and even tragic sense of humor. Without giving anything away, I would like to say that Little Miss Sunshine could even be categorized as a "tragicomedy". It's smart, witty, and satirical, but it never crosses to the "stupid" side. So if you love that kind of humor, you'll be laughing through many scenes of the movie.

But the best thing about Little Miss Sunshine is that it doesn't only succeed in making you laugh. It's also a very touching story that might put some in tears several times, and a reflective study of life. There's so much for people to relate to in this poignant movie. I personally saw a bit of my own father in Richard Hoover, and a bit of myself in Dwayne. The dysfunctional state of the Hoover family reminded me of how my family often fails to get along.

I'd like to thank Michael Arndt for crafting one of the funniest and most moving screenplays of the decade. If he wouldn't have received the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay that year, I would've had to send hate mail to the Academy. The married couple that directed this movie (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris) also did a good job. It surprisingly appears to be the only feature film they've directed in a career full of music video documentaries. I found the film's cinematography quite beautiful at times (for example, there were some rich countryside shots that took my breath away). 

Alan Arkin delivers an outstanding performance-- many would say the best of the whole cast-- as the foul-mouthed Grandpa. Whether he's complaining about always having chicken for dinner or giving Dwayne advice to have sex with a lot of women, he cracks you up throughout much of the movie. However, his words were even more memorable and resonant when he would be talking to his beloved Olive. Behind his crude shell, we find out that he has an enormous heart and that he really cares about his granddaughter. He gives her the hopeful advice and comforting words that fuel her confidence and determination to win the "Little Miss Sunshine" beauty pageant.

Olive: Grandpa, am I pretty?
Grandpa: You are the most beautiful girl in the world.  

This movie is a vehicle for Abigail Breslin; it showcases her talent with one of the greatest child performances of all time. Olive Hoover is also one of the greatest child characters of all time, because in the midst of this dysfunctional family, she is the ray of sunshine that holds everyone altogether and reminds them to stick to the goal of their journey.

There are many other great performances (Steve Carell, for instance), but I will take the time to highlight Paul Dano as the misunderstood adolescent Dwayne. Alan Arkin won the Academy Award he deserved and Abigail Breslin received a sensible nomination, but Paul Dano was completely overlooked at the Oscars. Dwayne goes through a tremendous transformation, and Paul Dano perfectly captures what he's feeling all along. 

Though at first it would seem that their long journey would only be worth it if Olive won the beauty pageant in the end, ultimately this doesn't matter at all. It's about the journey, not the destination. The days the family spent together traveling across the country in their iconic yellow VW bus were probably some of the most important days of their lives. They all learnt a little something about life, about each other, and about themselves.

In my opinion, Little Miss Sunshine's underlying message isn't about the superficiality of beauty. The message rests in the character of Richard Hoover (Dad): in his eyes, people are either winners or losers; there's no ground in between these two categories. He constantly brings his theory into everyday life, pestering everyone he knows with pointless words of advice, only to realize later that losing is simply part of life. Nobody is merely a "winner" or a "loser" in this world; everyone wins and loses at different points in their life. It's only human. Like Uncle Frank further develops, it's HOW you deal with your moments of loss and suffering that makes you who you are. This movie is telling us that when we fall, we shouldn't just give up and stay on the ground; we must get up and never stop hoping and trying. Because, after all, life just goes on.

Little Miss Sunshine is a rare cinematic gem that is both hilarious and heartwarming. It's impossible to forget. 

♥ (an instant favorite!)