FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES
Little Miss Sunshine
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
With Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Greg Kinnear
Few imagined it was still possible to make a good family road trip movie. But here comes “Little Miss Sunshine,” a black comedy that’s edgy on the outside and full of heart.
The Hoovers are not exactly the Waltons. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is struggling to push a book he wrote about nine easy steps to becoming a winner. His dad (Alan Arkin) is a heroin addict and his wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette), can’t quit cigarettes. Meanwhile, Sheryl’s brother, Frank (Steve Carell), just tried to commit suicide and her notepad-wielding son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), has taken a vow of silence. And then there’s spunky young Olive (Abigail Breslin), who needs the entire Albuquerque family to drive together in an old VW bus so she can enter the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in California.
The ensemble cast is excellent all around and creates a believable fractured family. Kinnear masters the role of all-American tough guy on the verge of a breakdown. Carell provides laughs even when he’s not the one talking and Collette embodies everything we dislike about our moms. Arkin is completely natural as the foul-mouthed but inwardly sweet grandpa. Surprisingly, the kids are great, too. Dano doesn’t talk for most of the movie but is immediately likable and has great chemistry with Carell. Breslin is cute in a Dakota Fanning kind of way, and it’s hard not to root for her even when the odds seem stacked high.
“Little Miss Sunshine” is a road trip comedy, and all the requisite vehicular breakdowns, road stop complications and police run-ins are here. But unlike Robin Williams’ “RV,” the gags feel fresh thanks to a smart script. The film climaxes with an absurd, skewering look at child beauty pageants and perhaps the most nerve-wracking talent show performance since the kid in “About A Boy” sang “Killing Me Softly” to his entire school.
The film works thanks to superb character development and a real soul. A lot of films in recent years with the “black comedy” tag have let the dark overwhelm the humor and thrown good feeling out the window. The Hoovers are a likable family despite their flaws, and though the film is rated R, there’s very little that will leave viewers morbidly offended.
Lovers of mature, smart comedy can’t go wrong with this film. “Little Miss Sunshine” is a real winner.