Monday, September 11, 2006

Review - Little Miss Sunshine

Is there such a thing in independent cinema as a 'normal' family? A dysfunctional clan has long been de rigueur for this kind of film and the Hoover family, stars of Little Miss Sunshine, certainly fit the bill. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker convinced a forthcoming book deal will make him famous, but he has an unfortunate habit of inflicting his 'inspirational' catchphrases on his own family. His father (Alan Arkin) is a foul-mouthed, randy old geezer who moved in with his son when he was kicked out of his retirement home for snorting heroin. Also moving into the family home is Richard's brother-in-law Frank (Steve Carrell), a depressed, gay Proust scholar who is recovering from a failed suicide attempt; and he has to move in with teenager Dwayne (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence until he achieves his dream of becoming a jet pilot. What a family; no wonder Richard's wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) is at the end of her tether.

And then there's sweet little Olive (Abigail Breslin). She's Richard and Sheryl's bespectacled cutie-pie of a daughter whose desire to be a beauty queen kick-starts the film's plot. She came second in a regional final for the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant but, due to a scandal involving some diet pills, the winner was forced to forfeit and now she has been invited to take her place at the main competition in California. For various reasons, all of the Hoover family must go along for the ride in an rickety old VW minivan, and in the grand tradition of the cinematic road trip, they'll learn a few things about themselves along the way.

Little Miss Sunshine was the big hit at this year's Sundance festival, receiving rave reviews and a $10 million-dollar distribution deal, and it's every inch a crowd-pleaser. It's a bright, jaunty indie film which features a first-rate cast and should provoke both laughs and tears before the credits finally roll. It contains a number of standard uplifting messages - "it's not winning and losing that counts”, "real beauty is within” etc. - and there's no doubt it's a cut above much of the mediocre fare American cinema has served up this summer.

Unfortunately, it's still not great. Little Miss Sunshine is a good film, a very likeable film, but it's a faintly unsatisfying one which hits all the requisite buttons while still feeling somewhat hollow at its core. The main reason Little Miss Sunshine never quite comes together is the fact that so much of it feels so calculating. The characters aren't really characters at all; they're archetypes, the kind of people who turn up in so many films like this, and they're given a few tics and props in lieu of genuine development. Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris open the film with a few brief vignettes to give us a grasp of who everyone is, but for too much of the picture they all seem to exist purely on the surface.

Aspects of the film like Dwayne's vow of silence, or Frank's admiration of Proust, are mere affectations and are never put to use in terms of developing our understanding of these characters. They're all just set-ups for gags which will pop up somewhere down the road, and the screenplay by first-timer Michael Arndt is often too neat in its desire to link everything up, and to give each person their moment in the spotlight.

Thankfully, Little Miss Sunshine's perfect cast rescues the situation by taking the thin portraits they have been presented with and investing them with as much heart and soul as they can muster. This film sees some of American cinema's most personable actors on show and it's their presence which lends weight to the film's rather strained and self-conscious air of kookiness. Kinnear and Collette are reliably fine; he successfully depicts Richard's upbeat sloganeering as a mask used to hide his innate insecurities, and she does well to make an impact at all given the lack of any sort of character.

But the film really belongs to three actors in particular. Alan Arkin, who hasn't had a role worthy of his talents for some time, is really terrific as the crotchety old grandfather. He has fun with the outrageous dialogue he has been given and he plays the role in wonderfully sardonic fashion; but he still expresses a deep-rooted love for his family, and his relationship with Olive is full of warmth. For her part, Breslin gives a delightfully guileless and charming performance which is impossible to resist. With this role and her turn in Lodge Kerrigan's forthcoming Keane, she has shown herself to be a remarkably talented young actress. But it's Steve Carrell who really stands out, even in this exalted company. Hitherto known for his more straightforward comedic roles, he displays new depths and nuances here, giving an understated and quite touching performance as Frank.

So it's the cast which really saves this movie. The script is more a loose collection of embarrassing moments than a satisfying narrative, but even when Arndt awkwardly engineers an unlikely meeting between Frank and the young lover who spurned him, Carrell manages to make it work and - even better - make it hurt. Alas, there's little the talented ensemble can do with some of the film's scenes which seem to be shoehorned into the plot and serve no discernible purpose. When the film needs to maintain momentum as it hits the final third, an implausible and unfunny scene with a traffic cop is the last thing it needs, and the comedy gambit of stealing a corpse is as tired as it gets. The often flat and unimaginative direction employed by Dayton and Faris is also guilty of letting the film dawdle when it could use a bit of a boost.

Eventually the family do make it to their destination, with each character allowed a moment of drama and self-realisation along the way; and they've predictably come together as a family by the time they reach California where the Little Miss Sunshine pageant is predictably portrayed as a freakshow. With all the girls hidden under six inches of make-up and sporting scarily fixed smiles, Olive and her family appear to be the only remotely human characters on show. The film's satirical intent becomes strangely uncertain at this point too, deriding the doll-like girls on show for their behaviour and then lauding Olive for doing something which is pretty much in the same territory, if not worse. Frankly, it all becomes just a bit too much, and the film had lost me a little by this point. All the contrived set-pieces and various epiphanies had taken their toll; I was all epiphanied out.

I hope that all doesn't sound too critical. I didn't hate the film at all, and to be honest it's a pretty hard film to dislike. There are lovely moments here and there, its heart is ultimately in the right place, and despite its numerous flaws Little Miss Sunshine does have a kind of puppyish charm which sneakily gets under your defences. The bulk of the credit for that must go to a group of actors who give the film more substance than the writer or directors can provide, and if you've ever wanted a good example of casting rescuing a misguided film, then here it is. Little Miss Sunshine isn't quite the bright spot I was hoping it would be, but thanks to the cast it does provide enough warmth to occasionally break through this summer's cinematic clouds.