Directed by Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris. 2006.

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In real life dysfunctional families can cause immense pain to their children which may last a lifetime. In the movies, however, dysfunctional families are just eccentric rogues who, beneath their harsh exterior, can be as lovable as puppy dogs. No matter how dysfunctional they appear at the beginning, we sense that by the end of the movie, they will be dancing in a circle. Case in point – Little Miss Sunshine, a heartwarming Indie comedy by first time directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris which has received much critical acclaim. The film is a funny and entertaining romp which tackles America’s obsession with winning and, in the process, targets crass pre-teen beauty pageants, motivational speakers, moody teenagers, emotionally unstable professors, and cantankerous old men.  

While its heart is in the right place, its bullets are mostly scattershot, only occasionally hitting their targets and the film does not develop its ideas to the point where they have a hard edge. The dysfunctional family in question is the Hoovers (a Kentucky Fried Chicken in every pot?) whose home is in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The family all strive for something beyond their reach in pursuit of happiness in a society that bestows no garlands for second place. Like any good television sitcom, each character is molded to type and fits neatly into the film’s message. Richard, the father (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker without anyone to motivate.  

The opening of the film shows him giving his lecture that he calls “Nine Steps to Success” to a half-empty classroom (he might say it was half full). Sheryl (Toni Collette) is the long-suffering matriarch of the family who tries to pick up the pieces after her brother Frank (Steve Carell), a scholar of French writer Marcel Proust, fails in a suicide attempt after being given the boot by his gay lover who happens to be a student. The moody teenager Dwayne (Paul Dano) hasn’t talked to anyone in a year and has vowed to remain silent until he is accepted in the Air Force Academy. Why an iconoclastic young man who reads Nietzsche would want to sign up for the U.S. military is one of those incongruities that will be better left to others to explain.  

The center of the film, however, deals with seven-year old Olive (Abigail Breslin), a sweet but plain and not too attractive young lady with a pot belly who wants to become a beauty queen and her relationship with Grandpa (Alan Arkin), a lecherous cynic. When Olive places second in a beauty contest and the winner has to vacate her title because she took diet pills, the little girl begins eligible to compete in the national “Little Miss Sunshine” contest in Redondo Beach, California. The film then becomes the road trip from hell as the family packs into their broken down VW bus running on two gears with contrived breakdowns in each character’s life. Little Miss Sunshine reaches its maximum impact, however, at the beauty pageant where the directors show us overly sexualized children who strut their stuff and grotesquely parade in front of admiring family members in their pursuit of the American dream.  

Quite hilarious is the pasty-faced emcee who sings America the Beautiful into the children’s ears. While the energy of the direction and excellence of the acting produces sympathy for the appealing characters, the comedy is at times so forced and its plot so implausible that even the excellent ensemble cast cannot save it. Little Miss Sunshine has a “subversive” feel to it and it correctly hints that intention is the key ingredient in achieving your goal, yet ultimately it is a pretty safe and comfortable ride and its message that winning isn’t everything and losing has its rewards feels shopworn to the point of banality.  


Howard Schumann
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