Little Miss Sunshine

4.5 Stars

“Little Miss Sunshine” is billed primarily as a comedic film, which does a disservice to the more dramatic aspects of Michael Arndt’s brilliant script. And it takes the combined acting talents of Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin, Toni Collette, Steve Carell and young actors Paul Dano and Abigail Breslin to make this film one of the funniest and most heart breaking films of the year.

After the standing beauty queen has to step down and not compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, seven year old runner-up Olive Hoover (Breslin) is asked to take her place. She has to get from Albuquerque, NM to Redondo, Calif. in order to compete. Her struggling self-proclaimed self-help guru father (Kinnear) drives their broken down VW bus with his wife (Collette), heroin snorting father (Arkin), suicidal, gay brother-in-law (Carell) and voluntarily silent step-son (Dano) in tow to get Olive to the pageant.

It really says something when the most powerful and engaging performance in a film littered with such highly respected actors came from the 23 year old unknown Dano. And he had no lines till the last half hour. Dano’s Dwayne Hoover embarked on a vow of silence till he was accepted into the Air Force flight training program, and at the time of the movie, he’s been going for nine months. He’s able to emote so much with just his facial and body expressions, and his little notebook. And then he just breaks your heart. It’s so incredibly moving. I almost cried.

But beyond the praise due to Dano, the whole cast worked together to construct a family that is forced to grow together during the 800 mile trip. And they all do. Kinnear shows us his tremendous range as an actor in one of his finest performances of his career, and the tremendously underrated Collette gets to showcase the talent that few of us have known for the past few years. But Carell, above them all, is worthy of praise. His career is following the same path of Jim Carrey, and I can only hope he’s more lucky with the Oscar voters than Carrey has been.

Arndt was able to resurrect a dying sub-genre of comedy, throw in some drama and score a hit with his first script. He constructed his script in a way that it was equal parts emotionally moving, uproariously funny and adorably heartwarming. It can do all of that in a span of 20 minutes. And luckily, he was able to pull that off, where as several before him failed.

It’s one of those films that is like a jigsaw puzzle. It only works because every aspect fits together. The writing works because of the fusion of drama and comedy, the acting works because the characters were the right ones for the actors to portray, and vice versa, the directing works because they had so much to work with. To have this film done any other way, but any other person or group of people just wouldn’t have worked. The coming together of all the pieces is what made this great.

From the actors to the writer, the film is littered with impressive rookie performances. But none more impressive than the feature film debut of Grammy winning husband-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. They cut their teeth on music videos back in the early 90’s when it actually meant something, and have patterned their transformation into the cinematic world after such new wave auteurs as Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. If they don’t fall into the Academy’s good graces with “Little Miss Sunshine”, they will eventually, I’m sure of it.

I must fault production designer Kalina Ivanov for perpetuating the annoying trend of making the time setting ambiguous by mixing modern technology and culture with archaic and anachronistic set dressings and costumes. It was funny in “Napoleon Dynamite” (barely) and two years later it’s just sad.

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