Director: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin
Ten years ago today, the world began to fall in love with an independent comedy about a little girl obsessed with beauty pageants and the family around her. And when I say "in love," I really mean that. The film has a 91% Tomato rating and a Metascore of 80, which made it particularly difficult to find an example of a negative review to go along with an example of a positive review. At the time of its release, Little Miss Sunshine was the very definition of "beloved." I can't really remember how I felt about it back in 2006 - though it can't have had too much of an impact on me since I've now only seen it a grand total of twice - but seeing it in 2016 confirmed something that I've long suspected: it's one of those flashy, fleeting films that starts to seem more and more out of place in a Best Picture lineup the further away from its nomination you get. It's not a bad movie, but it's not a great movie, either, and ten years removed from the hype have only served to expose its flaws.
A family in which everyone is experiencing their own form of crisis takes a road trip so that the youngest member can participate in a beauty pageant. Wacky adventures ensue.
The Good: "It has been a while since we've seen such a consistently funny and entertaining road movie. It's not a classic summer comedy — its dark themes might have played better during the fall and winter months — but it is definitely a refreshing alternative in a season filled with hot air and predictability." - Claudia Puig, USA Today
The Bad: "All dysfunctional families, at least in the movies, are unhappy — and unhilarious — in different ways. If you’re going to get on the wavelength of Little Miss Sunshine, you’ve got to be able to enjoy a comedy in which the characters fit into hermetically cute, predetermined sitcom slots." - Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
I have to admit, for the first two-thirds of Little Miss Sunshine (which until recently I had only seen at the time of its initial release), I was somewhat hard-pressed to recall how it could have been so critically beloved. The set up for the film is twee as hell and it's populated by people who aren't characters so much as they're "characters," each a collection of affectations and cliches. The father (Greg Kinnear) is a failing motivational speaker/life coach who thinks his nastiness towards others is disguised by the fact that he's always smiling and speaks with an upbeat cadence; the mother (Toni Collette) is overwhelmed with her role as caretaker for everyone and frustrated in her marriage; the grandfather (Alan Arkin) is a skirt-chasing drug addict; the uncle (Steve Carell) is a depressed homosexual scholar who likes to tell everyone that he's the preeminent authority on Proust; the teenage son (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence; and daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) dreams of becoming a beauty queen and spends all of her time practicing the routine that she will perform in the pageant. When they all hit the road together, they do so in a van that ends up partially breaking down, making it necessary for everyone to get out and push and then run and jump into the moving vehicle. For much of its running time, Little Miss Sunshine is aggressively quirky, daring you not to laugh at the grandfather's outlandish, usually sexual statements, the teenage son's refusal, no matter how urgent the situation, to communicate by any means other than writing notes on paper or through hand gestures, or the father's attempts to remain peppy even in the face of growing disaster. It doesn't ask you to love it, it demands it, and it will keep throwing eccentric little details at you until it totally exhausts your power to resist it.
Ten years on, the charms of Little Miss Sunshine have become slightly obscured, though it's somewhat hard to ascertain whether this is so because of the film itself or because the film's massive success (it earned just over seven times its budget at the domestic box office alone, and netted four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture) resulted in some copycatting. During the early going of my rewatch, I couldn't help but think of a scene from The Simpsons episode "Any Given Sundance" where the festival's selection panel laments a lack of films with the "Sundance independent film spirit" and then gets excited at the prospect of a film described as "Paul Giamatti... is the world's greatest super spy... who only exists in the mind of an overweight agoraphobic jazz musician..." It's that constant twisting of a simple premise to make it as offbeat as possible, that tendency for an indie movie to go out of its way not to be "Hollywood," proudly casting aside Hollywood formula as if it isn't adhering to something equally formulaic, that grates. Here, specifically, it's the idea that no one (except the mother, played by Collette) can just be a person, that everyone has to have a "thing" that can act as the shorthand for the personality the film isn't really exploring, that makes Little Miss Sunshine a difficult watch for so much of its story. But then...
The last third of Little Miss Sunshine is what saves the film, because it is brilliant. While what leads up to this point is broad and trying just a bit too hard, this last stretch is sharp and laser focused and incisive. This is the point at which the family, less one member, finally makes it to the pageant and Olive competes and performs a dance in the talent portion. No one in the family, except her grandfather who acted as her choreographer, has seen Olive's routine until she takes the stage, so they're just as shocked as the judges and the rest of the audience when she begins dancing to "Super Freak" while doing a PG-version of a striptease. Everyone in the room behaves as if they are positively scandalized by this display, as if they can't even wrap their heads around how Olive's family could let her be sexualized like that. Yet, even though Olive is tearing off parts of her costume and dancing to a song and in a manner which, in a different context, might be provocative, there's nothing sexual about what she's doing because she's so guileless and childlike. She's just a kid having fun and she looks like a kid while she's doing it. In contrast, she's surrounded by children who are made up to look as little like children, and as much like (creepy) miniature adults, as possible, which is inherently more troubling and "sexualized" than anything Olive is doing. Although individual family members experience "aha" moment before getting to the pageant - the son starts speaking again, the father is forced to let go of his "winner or nothing" attitude, the uncle comes face to face with the things he lost and which drove him to suicidal despair - it's the hypocrisy on display at the pageant that makes things crystallize for the family, that finally brings them together as a united front.
It's towards the end of the film that the characters finally relax enough to seem even remotely like actual people rather than assemblages of affectations. While interactions between the family members at the beginning of the film ring with artifice, there are moments of authenticity leading up to the end, from the wordless comfort that Olive offers to her brother after his crisis, to the heart-to-heart shared by the brother and the uncle, to the words of validation that Olive ends up getting from her hero, to the way that the family comes together to protect Olive from feeling embarrassed, shamed, or rejected by the people at the pageant. While much of Little Miss Sunshine doesn't really hold up very well, the ending remains solid and is strong enough to make up for the weaknesses that preceded it. In the case of Little Miss Sunshine, it actually is the destination, rather than the journey, that really matters.