U.S. Release Date: July 26, 2006
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Writer: Michael Arndt
Producer: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa
Composer: Mychael Danna
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston
Running Time: 1 hour and 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (language, some sex and drug content)

A Light Humorous Take on Dysfunctional Family
by Scott Holleran

The best movie this summer is the dry Little Miss Sunshine, a slightly smug slice of life that is the most entertaining picture playing in theaters. Granted, that's not saying much, but this little tart is as good as it gets.

The story of a dysfunctional family embarking on an ill-fated road trip to enter their daughter in a beauty pageant is contrived, self-consciously quirky and stocked with the requisite festival conceit that everyone is utterly messed up.

The happy, creamy inside makes it worth the fuss. If big budget noisemakers pitching nihilism and depravity are rotten to the core—and they are—the caustic Little Miss Sunshine scores one for something closer to idealism and civility. Take it with more than a few grains of salt.

When we meet the family, to the chords of a dissonant musical theme that cues the movie's sense of melancholy, plump little Olive (Abigail Breslin) is like Marilyn in The Munsters. She's normal, or so it seems.

At their worst, Grandpa (Alan Arkin) is a sour old snort addict, Dad (Greg Kinnear) is a middle-aged moralizer, Mom (Toni Collette) is haggard, older brother Dwayne (Paul Dano) refuses to speak and Uncle Frank (Steve Carell) is a suicidal homosexual. They are each at low points—in work, marriage and health. Olive, by contrast, is innocent.

When the bespectacled kid wins a slot in the title's Redondo Beach beauty contest, they're off to see the wizard in a Volkswagen minibus with a bad clutch. Anyone who's ever had one of those days—and life is full of them—will at some point have to howl during their travels.

As the Weird family makes their way from New Mexico to southern California's beaches, the westward expansion softens them where they're too hard, hardens them where they're too soft and, as the family grows to accept reality, with an admittedly noticeable emphasis on their flaws, they become better than they used to be.

Not as cute as it sounds, Sunshine happily bucks the indie rule that bad is good. It fills the screen with character-driven humor and a hilarious machinery malfunction that putters into an offbeat affirmation of suburban values.

Michael Arndt's script, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, isn't more profound than making the most out of life's lemons, and these folks are too neat to be nuttier than a fruitcake. But they stay on course and arrive at an enjoyable destination.

Whether Olive steps into the spotlight of the sick and twisted world of an un-childlike beauty contest is part of the ride and the surprise, though jarring, lies in what represents the family's best: Olive's sincerity. It is this attribute that leads her (and her emotional Addams Family) to Sunshine's inevitable conclusion: accept the reality of what's wrong in order to recover what's right.

The cast is excellent, sinking completely into their characters. Collette is once again the perfect chameleon, though Kinnear, Arkin, Carell and the kids are also memorable. One can probably wait for the DVD but after a summer of slim and stupid pickings, Little Miss Sunshine offers a thin, muted ray of light.

Buy on DVD
DVD Notes
The box and menu for the single disc DVD release of Little Miss Sunshine employs the familiar Volkswagen van on a solid backdrop of school bus yellow. The features reflect the pared down approach. Printed inserts about the Best Picture nominee are limited to one double-sided page (the disc is double sided, too, for full and widescreen versions) listing scene selections and extras. The rest of the material promotes Fox catalog titles. Even the disc is blank.

Besides the movie, visual features include alternate endings, with or without commentary, and a music video. Other DVD additions are two audio commentaries: one by writer Michael Arndt with directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris—the better track—and one by the directors alone. Both are a cut above most commentaries, not this writer's favorite DVD asset, and contain useful insights.

Writer Arndt breaks down his ideas, from the notion that dividing people into winners and losers is an oversimplification that inevitably leads to misery to each character's goal representing some degree of idealism; that, for each person in the family, a value is at stake. Arndt sees in Olive's journey an implicit choice: are you going to live for yourself or for the sake of others?

Directors Faris and Dayton comment in both tracks on finding sweetness and melancholy in the music, the importance of introducing characters by way of goals, not sarcasm, increased shooting mobility in a well-lighted house, reducing Little Miss Sunshine to essentials—a credit to Arndt's script—and the influence of An American Family, the 1973 documentary series about the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California. The result is a tender stitching of irony and tragedy that is one of the funniest movies in years.

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