Sunday, 28 January 2007

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Little Miss Sunshine

Every once in a while a life-affirming little gem of a film will come along, breaking all the conventional rules of story-telling, and somehow breaking out of its indie/art house low-budget beginnings to become a genuine mainstream hit. Little Miss Sunshine is just such a movie, and it's encouraging to see its 'surprise' nomination for an oscar in the same week that sees its release onto DVD in the UK.

Ostensibly this is a story about a dysfunctional family (the film's tag line is 'Everyone pretend to be normal') where the youngest member wants to enter one of those uniquely American child beauty contestants. But the film is so much more than that simple premise would suggest. It's a heart-warming, laugh-out-loud funny 'road' movie with real depth, wit and charm at its core, with a quirky narrative structure that means every time you think you know where it's going it will suddenly throw a left turn at you.

Little Miss Sunshine screencap

The film is built around an excellent cast who have to play a range of eccentric characters. Greg Kinnear plays the head of the family, Richard, a 'motivational success' speaker whose business is failing to deliver on the claims it is making to an ever-dwindling customer base, and whose over-exuberance and optimism are driving his whole family to distraction. Wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) has a pro-honesty philosophy that is threatening to tear the whole family apart. As the story starts she is collecting her gay, suicidal brother Frank (Steve Carell who seriously impresses by going against type and playing it straight - in both meanings of the word) from hospital. Frank won't be the first problematic inlaw to stay with the family - they're already struggling to cope with a foul-mouthed grandfather (Alan Arkin) who has been thrown out of his retirement home for his lewd and drug-fuelled behaviour.

To add to the problems son Dwayne (Paul Dano) is in that difficult stage of attaining puberty where he has decided he hates everybody, and has successfully maintained a vow of silence for several months. The family are rounded out with youngest child Olive (Abigail Breslin) - the would-be beauty queen desperate to win the 'Little Miss Sunshine' child beauty award from which the film takes its title.

Little Miss Sunshine screencap

When a winning regional contestant has to pull out of a big beauty contest on the other side of the coast, second-placed Olive has a chance to enter, and with money tight, and sick relatives to be watched for suicidal tendencies the only solution seems to be to take a camper van and drive the whole family to the contest. Things start to go awry pretty much from the start, when the van demonstrates its constant inability to start unless it's pushed at speed down a steep incline, and things go from bad to worse as the family find themselves forced to deal with each other's peculiarities in a very confined space, in order to support its youngest member. Not that there's anything mean about the family members, or the humour derived from their situation - this is all good clean fun, or would be if the grandfather weren't so foul-mouthed and so insistent that the depressed Frank buy him some porn to liven up the journey.

There are laughs aplenty throughout, but the core message here is the very basic one about the importance of family, and supporting each other in times of adversity, and the film successfully navigates its way between the difficult line separating comedy from drama, producing something that could so easily have been saccharine sweet, but thankfully isn't.

Little Miss Sunshine screencap

The film is written and directed by husband and wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who appear to have brought a wealth of experience bringing up their own family to the film. Best known for their music videos the couple make the move to long-running motion pictures as if they were born to it. Little Miss Sunshine is an impressive debut for the couple.

For a release as recent as this, and as low budget as this, it's hardly surprising that the extra's are a bit thin. The DVD is packaged in a cardboard slipcase, but there's no chapter index, and the only real extra is a commentary track by the writer/director couple. This is fast-placed, if a little dull. Other than that there's only a set of alternative endings (available with optional commentary) which serve only to demonstrate that the chosen ending was the right one to have taken, despite the original plans for a somewhat different closing scene.

Little Miss Sunshine screencap

Movies like Little Miss Sunshine are all too rare, and if you haven't seen the film yet, you're in for a real treat with the DVD. With a great story, great cast, great transfer and great direction what are you waiting for? Get it now and cross your fingers that this time next month it gets the oscar win it clearly deserves. Highly recommended!

Little Miss Sunshine screencap

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good Review
helped me with my essay!
thanks =]