All happy families are alike. But each unhappy family makes a promising subject for a screwball comedy, as demonstrated by Little Miss Sunshine. This road movie, about a dysfunctional clan driving from New Mexico to California, came with a whopping price tag: Fox Searchlight snapped it up for $10m at this year's Sundance Film Festival. You can see why: with its sitcom sensibility, wacky characters and one-size-fits-all, nonconformist message, Little Miss Sunshine is a safe bet for audiences weaned on prime-time television. The miracle is how much good material has survived in such a conventional format.
Within the film's first five minutes, we have the measure of the Hoover family. Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear) is an uptight motivational speaker hoping to receive a tidy advance from a publisher for his nine-step Refuse to Lose manual, which is full of such pronouncements as, "Luck is the name losers give to their own failure." His wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette), is on her way to the hospital to collect her brother Frank (Steve Carell), an esteemed Proust scholar who attempted suicide after a failed relationship with a male student. Sheryl places Frank under the watch of her 15-year-old son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), a surly Nietzsche obsessive who hasn't spoken in six months. Also raising the household's eccentricity quotient are seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin), whose ungainliness has not stifled her dreams of becoming a beauty queen, and Grandpa (Alan Arkin), a heroin-snorting war veteran recently expelled from the Sunset Manor retirement home.
It looks initially like a sure-fire case of too many kooks spoiling the broth. But a glorious scene early in the film puts paid to such fears, as the family members negotiate their way through the minefield of polite conversation at the dinner table. Sheryl, who declares herself "pro-honesty", encourages Frank to answer young Olive's questions about his recent hospital stay. This makes Richard uncomfortable, Grandpa hostile and Olive incredulous. "You fell in love with a boy?" the child splutters. "That's silly." Frank also attempts to engage the silent Dwayne in small talk. "I hate everyone," Dwayne scrawls on his notepad. "What about your family?" Frank enquires gently. The teenager responds by underlining the word "everyone".
When Olive qualifies for the finals of a junior beauty pageant in California, Grandpa, Mum, Dad, uncle and brother accompany her in the family's battered VW van. Most of what happens next is signposted as clearly as the Hoovers' route from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach. It's no surprise when Richard wakes up to his own sense of failure, Dwayne breaks his vow of silence with an anguished outpouring, or Frank comes to terms with his insecurities. And, of course, the beauty contest itself is exposed as a metaphor for morally bankrupt America. As biting insights go, it's somewhat lacking in bite and insight.
There are, however, many bright spots in Little Miss Sunshine. It is unusual, for instance, to see such a candid portrayal of low-income living in US cinema. The Hoovers gather at the table in their cluttered home to eat takeaway chicken on paper plates, and to drink pop from cheap tumblers given away free with fast food. When they stop at a diner on their journey, no one seems remotely perturbed by Sheryl's limit of $4 per head. With details of this sort, the film administers a few spoonfuls of medicine to help the sugar go down. The family's epiphany at the pageant, where Dwayne protests that "Life is one beauty contest after another", is a rare example of the script straying into bumper-sticker language.
Despite delivering most of his dialogue with pen and paper, Dano is exceptional as Dwayne, striking a subtle balance between moodiness and torment. Carell pumps real feeling into Frank, a character who could easily have lapsed into cliché. Only Toni Collette, as Sheryl, is given insultingly little to do; in some scenes, she seems simply to have wandered off set. Perhaps she was calling her agent to ask why she was notching up fewer close-ups than the VW.
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