"Knight Thoughts" -- exclusive web content
A black comedy so bitter and funny it burns a hole through the screen
Little Miss Sunshine
8-4-06 "Knight Thoughts" web exclusive
By Richard Knight, Jr.
Little Miss Sunshine is the astonishing first feature of hip music video and commercial directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie
Faris and screenwriter Michael Arndt. The movie, a razor sharp black comedy, was the hit of Sundance – no surprise given the
movie's hip cast and subject matter that revolves around a dysfunctional family. The movie became the darling of the fest and the
subject of an intense – and very public – bidding war (the rights eventually were won by Fox Searchlight in the neighborhood of $10
million). Now this bitter black comedy (so caustic it practically punches a hole through the screen) is here to save the summer
season stuffed with so many bland to “Oh, I guess it was okay” blockbusters. It also made a bad day very good – and what better
can be said of a movie?
The film is a classic road picture that follows the format of a zillion road comedies that have come before (it most closely resembles
National Lampoon’s Vacation – but on acid). Little Olive (Abigail Breslin) has made the state finals for one of those little miss beauty
pageants and come hell or high water her mother, Sheryl (Toni Collette) and father, Richard (Greg Kinnear) are determined to get
her there. So, into their broken down yellow VW bus they herd Richard’s hippie, four letter spewing father (Alan Arkin), Sheryl’s gay
brother Frank (Steve Carell) who is just recovering from a suicide attempt, and the teenaged Dwayne (Paul Dano). Dwayne is so
disenfranchised from the rest of the family that he has, like Holly Hunter in The Piano, stopped speaking and only communicates
through tersely scrawled notes.
Each of these misfits has a unique agenda but slowly as the trip progresses, naturally, these agendas will coalesce until these
disparate individuals, once a real family and not just a pretend one that sits around the dinner table in surly silence, will find a way
to reconnect and support one another again. During the trip some of the incidents seem a touch too coincidental and contrived but
the situations are so sharp and funny you don’t care. Little Miss Sunshine is not as out there with the humor as the existential
comedy I Heart Huckabees but it offers its performers the same type of blissful comedic moments that Huckabees did.
Playing characters that are much closer to your friends and neighbors, however, the acting sleight of hand of these performers might
get overlooked. Has anyone noticed what a terrifically nuanced actor Greg Kinnear has become? Or do his matinee idol good looks
prevent the recognition he deserves? He was revelatory in the creepy Bob Crane biopic, Auto Focus and his work here is just as
good. Walking the fine line of playing a failed dreamer who just won’t give up and lives his life according to bumper sticker phrases,
Kinnear plays one of those phony, eternal, sunny optimists who doesn't really believe in his soul the gibberish he's spouting. Watch
the gamut of emotions that cross his face in seconds as he gets bad news during a phone call. Matching him are Collette as his
harried wife (who also mesmerizes this week in The Night Listener), Arkin who gets a dream part as Arkin’s hippe, liberated
grandfather and Dano as the disgusted, silent teenager.
Carell gets a special mention as the gay brother and uncle – a Proust scholar (naturally) complete with pink shirt, khakis, and blue
and white striped socks and loafers as does Breslin as the little girl who actually looks and acts like a real little girl. The self-esteem
issues that the filmmakers confront via the beauty pageant that closes the picture is borne on the shoulders of this tiny child actress
and she more than holds her own with her elders. This hilarious segment – complete with smarmy emcee, witch-like pageant owner
and a bevy of Jon Benet Ramsey look-alikes is all the funnier because it taps so deeply into the revenge fantasy we’ve all had when
confronted with these nauseating spectacles.
Throughout, Arndt’s script scores many points on the narcissism so inherent today in American culture and how the lack of human
connection emphasizes it (all to a bouncy, perky Jon Brion type score by Mychael Dana). There is a brief sequence at one point with
a grief counselor in which the mood changes from compassion to aggression in the space of seconds that is as telling as the whole
of American Beauty. “The center isn’t holding very well” Joan Didion wrote about American suburban culture, California-style 40 years
ago but as Little Miss Sunshine shows, even a center as cracked and splintered in a family as the one revealed here has the
possibility of being renewed.
Who would have thought that such a bitter black comedy would have such an upbeat, heartfelt message?