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Little Miss Sunshine

Reviewed By William Goss
Posted 07/30/06 16:19:40

"All Aboard The Bittersweet Express"
5 stars (Awesome)

On paper, an independent film about a dysfunctional family’s road trip sounds like a token film festival favorite, a quirky dramedy likely to garner early praise and a handful of awards before eventually shuffling its way to art houses nationwide as the season’s latest mildly overrated indie sensation. However, like its characters, 'Little Miss Sunshine' perseveres, working against all odds to be a surprisingly satisfying creation, thanks to the combined efforts of its winning ensemble and married music-video veterans Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

The Hoovers suck. Richard (Greg Kinnear, The Matador) constantly preaches the perpetual near-success of his motivational program, while his wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette, In Her Shoes), cares for his foul-mouthed heroin addict of a father (Alan Arkin, Firewall), her suicidal Proust scholar of a brother (Steve Carell, The 40-Year-Old Virgin), and their two children, the voluntarily mute Dwayne (Paul Dano, The Girl Next Door) and the ever-eager Olive (Abigail Breslin, Signs), whose sudden qualification for the titular pageant results in the family piling into an increasingly unreliable Volkswagen bus and making their way from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Redondo Beach, California.

The road is bumpy and bittersweet, as several situations of varying hilarity and heartbreak test the family, the entire trip threatening a collapse of their dysfunctional dynamic just as likely to break down as the bus itself. A United We Stand billboard lies in the background as one character sees their dreams devastated in an instant, while the family’s overall pursuit of the American Dream seems itself to be just about out of steam. Earlier on, the van speeds right past an exit for the Carefree Highway, a sign momentarily mocking their wearisome voyage by temporarily tempting them with a road that wouldn’t get anyone anywhere. However, the destination turns out to be just as important as the journey, as these permanent losers, these people who have had it with broken hearts and empty promises somehow make it their personal crusade to support one little girl’s dream, lest she have a chance that has long since past them by. Without being simple sadsacks or typical underdogs, the characters (and comedy) build with a deftness rarely seen in modern filmmaking, and any subsequent heartbreak is nothing less than genuine, all the while making for a climax that is equally cringe-inducing, side-splitting and feel-good in the best possible, and most deserving, sense.

Whereas any lesser elements would most certainly doom the film to contrived indie quirk oblivion, everything before and behind the camera forms a fortunate harmony that keeps it afloat, the most crucial part of which is the exceptional ensemble. Arkin, Carell, and Dano form a terrific trio of miserable males who find themselves drudging through yet another day whichever way they can, yet Kinnear puts on a richer performance as a man who simply refuses to accept what a frequent failure he is, deluding himself daily with his gotta-work nine-step plan and the constant wait for that golden phone call to remedy all their worries. Collette holds everyone together when everything falls apart (her fierce glare upon receiving a certain bit of disappointing news is priceless), and Breslin mercifully keeps her performance in check as the plain girl with big dreams that the family refuses to give up on, even when the world has given up on them. Even brief supporting work by Bryan Cranston (“Malcolm in the Middle”), Mary Lynn Rajskub (“24”), and Beth Grant, virtually reprising her Donnie Darko role as a particularly vicious pageant judge, is on par with the sincere and spot-on work of the main leads.

For their directorial debut, Dayton and Faris adopt a seriously understated visual sensibility, especially compared to the big-screen works of their music-video contemporaries, yet their tone seems suitably modest for the winning screenplay with which writer Michael Arndt makes his simultaneous debut. Equally essential to the proceedings is the soundtrack, indelibly distinguished by tracks from DeVotchKa and Sufjan Stevens and pleasantly complemented by composer Mychael Danna’s score.

The laziest label would mark it as the crowd-pleasing Sundance spawn of 'National Lampoon’s Vacation' and 'The Royal Tenenbaums,' but that wouldn’t be fair to either the filmmakers or the viewers. Dayton, Faris, and company have captured a too-true outlook on life, an authentic blend of cynicism, sarcasm, bitterness, and yet that slightest scrap of hope, the silver lining of that pesky rain cloud that one can never seem to shake off. 'Little Miss Sunshine' is ultimately a testament to the careful balance of endurance and endearment that makes both family and life tolerable, bearable, and maybe, just maybe, worth withstanding.

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