It's pretty easy to make a movie about dysfunctional suburban families. It must be, as there are so damn many of them these days. Very few of them are funny, though. Usually you leave the theater or turn off the DVD feeling a bit depressed about society, life, your own family, and the future. Starting with the same core material, Little Miss Sunshine manages to be tremendously funny without descending into either satire or farce.
The most amazing thing about Little Miss Sunshine, the best comedy of 2006, might be that it was written by someone who has no other writing credits (Michael Arndt), and was directed by the team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who have previously worked in those easily dismissed genres of music videos and television commercials. They may never make a better movie with a more talented cast than this one, so enjoy it while you can.
The plot (and movie itself) starts out slowly and feels like it's heading in a different direction. Sheryl (Toni Collette ) stops at the hospital to pick up her brother, Frank (a pre-superstar Steve Carell), who tried to commit suicide. Frank will be bunking with Sheryl's son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), who reads nihilist philosophy and has taken a vow of silence until he gets into the Air Force Academy. Sheryl's husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) is trying to become a motivational speaker, marketing his nine-steps to success. Richard's father, Grandpa (Alan Arkin), was kicked out of his nursing home for snorting heroin and now lives in Richard and Sheryl's basement and now spends his time teaching seven year old Olive (Abigail Breslin, Mel Gibson's daughter in Signs) talent routines to use in her "Little Miss" beauty pageants.
The family heads from Albuquerque to California in a yellow VW van so Olive can compete in the titular pageant. Like a left turn when you have your right signal blinking, the movie then veers away from the expected and becomes a comic road movie, with some of the best dialogue and acting of the year. All six leads deserve recognition in the upcoming awards season, but Kinnear really stands out as a man who divides the world into two camps, winners and losers, and does what he can to make sure his family is in the right camp. Dano and Carell form a bond as two of Kinnear's "losers" who go to bed in their shared room with Dano writing on his communication note pad, "welcome to hell."
The movie focuses on the journey to Olive's pageant, but doesn't mind gently skewering the pageant itself in the final quarter. It's one of those moments that doesn't feel as real as the rest of the movie, but, like stealing a dead body from the hospital, it accounts for some of the biggest laughs and also brings the family closer together. This family starting as six individuals with their own hopes and dreams and pulling together without losing their individual identities is the very core of what makes the movie more than just another dysfunctional family indie picture.
One of the problems with being a surprising independent hit is that no one thought about (or provided the money for) any type of "behind the scenes" filming or interviews while the film was being shot. When it comes time to assemble a DVD, there is not going to be the kind of material that bigger budgeted or more effects laden pictures have to work with. Little Miss Sunshine is no exception and the extras are pretty sparse. They do, however, have a couple of nice characteristics that I wish more DVD releases would emulate.
This is a single disc release, but they provide both a widescreen and full screen version of the film. I know that most aficionados decry full screen for good reason, but why not make it easier for one family to get both versions. The widescreen is shown in 2.35:1 and it looks great. Despite shooting completely on location in some cramped places like vans and hotel rooms, the directors got some interesting shots and they look tremendous in this transfer.
The main extras are two audio commentaries both featuring directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. The director commentary is referred to as being a "reluctant" commentary by Faris right near the beginning and she seems somewhat reluctant for the first 15 minutes or so, but Dayton guides the conversation and seems interested in giving people their money's worth and Faris eventually comes around. As first time directors, they both do an excellent job balancing "how to shoot a movie in 30 days" tidbits with character motivation. It's one of the better commentaries I've heard in the last few years.
The other commentary is a writers commentary with Michael Arndt, but Faris and Dayton join in on this one, too. The focus is on the script and characters rather than the shots and the filmmaking process. Arndt is a first time screenwriter but the success of the movie has given him a lot of confidence and he speaks passionately about what he was trying to do with each character and line. Faris and Dayton don't repeat themselves (too often) with comments from the other commentary.
Once you get past the commentaries, don't blink or you will miss the rest. There are four alternate endings that are the sum total of the deleted scenes. The directors add a commentary to each one on why it was ultimately discarded. One was pretty funny and came from a suggestion from Abigail Breslin, but the others are weak scenes and rightly left off the final edit. A music video for "Till the End of Time" by DeVotchka, a Denver band that performed the majority of the music on the soundtrack, is included. Finally, you get to see the commercial for the soundtrack itself and trailers from other recent Fox Searchlight movies out in theaters or on DVD. It's odd that they don't include the trailers for this actual movie. I remember them being pretty good and one of the reasons I went to see this movie in the theater.
The lack of significant extras brings down the rating of this DVD but only slightly. The key here is that you are getting a terrific movie and two solid commentaries.