Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Why I Love "Little Miss Sunshine"

It’s very rare for a movie to enter my heart and stay there. Gina is content watching just about any drivel that makes its way to the screen, but most movies bore me. They are either too derivative of past films or so contrived that they leave me restless and preferring to peoplewatch the other members of the audience. But “Little Miss Sunshine” worked its charms on me immediately and has held up to repeated viewings. I think it’s a funny, insightful and ultimately affirming look at the mad quest for illusory success that has captured the soul of our society.

For anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil the pleasure that comes from a first viewing by giving away too much detail. The framework of the plot is simple: 7 year old Olive gets a chance to appear in the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant in California, and her family drives for two days to get her to it. That’s basically it.

This is very much an ensemble movie, and the actors all completely embody their characters. Olive is an innocent, slightly overweight child who in her spare time repeatedly watches beauty pageant videos in slow motion to vicariously experience the moment when the giddy winner is crowned. Abigail Breslin captured her guileless enthusiasm so perfectly that she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress award.

Olive’s father, played by Greg Kinnear, is an earnest but unsuccessful motivational speaker striving for a book publishing deal, who ceaselessly champions the idea that winning is the only measure of success. His wife (Toni Collete) is the harried emotional center of both the family and the movie, an essentially caring woman who has brought her gay brother (Steve Carrell), “the number one Proust scholar in the country”, to convalesce with the family after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. He is forced to share a room with Olive’s Nietsche-reading teenage brother (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence until he is able to leave his family and enter flight school. Last but not least is Olive’s grandfather, (played by Alan Arkin in an Oscar-winning role) who lives with the family after being kicked out of his retirement home for snorting heroin.

Everyone in this family is obsessed with some illusory goal, and the movie effectively shows how the drive to achieve at all costs can bring heartache and despair. There is actually one more pivotal character in the movie: the family’s barely operable Volkswagen bus. With a non-working clutch this vehicle can only get in gear by being pushed or by traveling downhill. When it’s pitiful horn gets stuck and bleets at random moments, it is almost as if the soul of the family (as well as the movie) has found a metaphoric voice.

What I most love about Little Miss Sunshine is how all of the family members, each in his or her own way, rally around Olive to protect her soul. Everyone delays or foregoes an important personal goal to protect her innocence and support her vision of herself. In a similar fashion, I’ve gotten the sense that the directors and producers similarly protected the innocent core of the movie. There is a lot of perversity and cynicism snaking through the plotline, but ultimately the essential message of the importance of relationships is sustained.

Not every scene worked for me. There is some slapstick and a couple of “movie coincidences” that could have been better written, but these are minor quibbles. This is a joyously funny movie, and one that I think will long reside in any list of top 100 American films.

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