Little Miss Sunshine introduces its first character with a score that’s little more than soft pounding on a Casio. As it moves to each subsequent player in a rather predictable indie film actor montage, the music builds. By the time we meet the film’s final player the music has built into a crescendo, setting the tone for what’s to come.
The movie’s full of gimmicks, and starts dishing them out right from the start. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a struggling motivational speaker, who hopes to turn his 9 Steps into a Dr. Phil like empire. So far it hasn’t happened. His 15-year-old son Dwayne is determined to escape his family and become a fighter pilot. He reads Niestzche and hasn’t spoken in over a year, as a way to focus himself on his goal. Grandpa (Alan Arkin) is a heroine addict who’s been kicked out if his nursing home and now must live with his kid. Mom Sheryl has just picked up her brother Frank (Steve Carell) from the hospital, where he’d been spending time recovering after trying to kill himself. The bandages around his wrists loudly proclaim his mental troubles. When the youngest Hoover Olive (Abigail Breslin) is invited to participate in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, the family latches on to her rather innocent dream of winning pageants, and hops in their almost too cute yellow Volkswagen Van to travel to California.
Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ directorial debut was a huge hit at Sundance, and it’s easy to see why. Though the script is full of predictable character and car artifices, it’s never weighed down by them. Instead, the story feels genuine, anchored by heartfelt performances from Sunshine’s incredibly talented cast. The movie grows with their characters, the drama building and boiling as one disaster after the next affects each individual. With each life setback the family encounters, they stop flailing to fix their own lives and instead draw closer together, focusing more on Olive and her innocent little dream as it becomes clearer to each that her hopes of success begin to reflect their own need for something special in their lives.
The movie is full of ups and downs, laughter and sadness. Richard reaches profound realizations about his need for success that really hit home with me, for others it might be something else. Maybe it’ll be Grandpa’s bawdy jokes mixed with sage advice that’ll do it for you. “Screw lots of women”, he advises Dwayne, as he looks back on a life full of regret. Sunshine’s simple story keeps building and building, adding layer upon layer to wherever it is that the family within it is going through. Little Miss Sunshine is an uneven journey of highs and lows, but it never stops layering to that emotional crescendo when the Hoover family has its chance to really come together.
Dysfunctional family road trip movies are nothing new, but it’s been awhile since we’ve had a solid entry into the genre. Little Miss Sunshine lifts itself above the Johnson Family Vacations of the world using an indie style tempered with enough accessibility to make it connectable to almost anyone. The movie plays broad, but not because it waters itself down to a point where the lowest common denominator can stomach it. Rather, the film takes a personal approach, hitting different notes that will affect each person who watches it differently. How those thematic bullet points impact each viewer will differ, but what makes it accessible is the fact that they will affect everyone.