Little Miss Sunshine
directed by Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton
(20th Century Fox, 2006)

Oh, what a fun road trip to California it promises to be.

In the driver's seat is Dad (Greg Kinnear), whose determined sunniness and devotion to his nine steps to success are belied by undereye circles and barely controlled panic. To his right, Mom (Toni Collette), whose patience with Dad is wearing thin.

Behind them in the aging yellow VW bus are brother Dwayne (Paul Daho), who has forsaken the nine steps to success in favor of a vow of silence and devotion to Friedrich Nietzsche; Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), the pre-eminent Proust scholar in America, who's now on suicide watch; and Grandpa (Alan Arkin), who's been kicked out of his retirement home for bad behavior (like, he's a heroin addict).

And then there's Olive. Sweet Olive, who wants to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, is the tie that binds and gives this dysfunctional family what function it has.

It's a heavy load for a young actor and, to the everlasting fortune of husband-and-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, they had Abigail Breslin. Her Olive -- all gawky adolescent legs, little-girl potbelly and owl glasses -- is about as far from the airbrushed "pageant princess" ideal as you'll find.

Still, with Grandpa as her coach (what a help he'll turn out to be) and with her family along for the ride with various levels of willingness, Olive will get to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant -- as best as her family's constant bickering and ancient van will allow.

It's like Little Miss Sunshine dropped from the heavens -- if you're the kind of person who likes movies with a skewed attitude, if a little profanity won't shake you up and if you love watching movies that manage to be offensive while saying something important while still making you laugh. Screenwriter Michael Arndt -- with his first swing, no less -- has managed to meld disillusionment, resentment, death and a little well-timed Rick James ("Super Freak") into a strange, hilariously heartwarming tale of staying true to yourself and your family.

review by
Jen Kopf

13 September 2008

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