The best thing about Little Miss Sunshine is that it makes you feel good to recommend it to people. There are a couple of deep-down comedic payoffs that arise from quirky characters and a script that knows how to hold its cards until it has a royal flush. The odd thing is that, though I’ve been telling people it’s good for a week, I’ve been doing it without much conviction. The movie is like the pretty, college-bound girlfriend your parents like, when you’d rather be going out with the chick with the black fingernail polish smoking American Spirits behind the school.
Little Miss Sunshine has, thank heavens, a character aptly named Frank, played by Steve Carrell, who cuts the sweetness with some much-needed acidity. Frank, a gay Proust scholar, tried to kill himself after his boyfriend dumped him for a professional rival and his career went down the toilet. "I’m glad you’re still here," says his sister Cheryl, played by Toni Collette, in the Toni Collette role. He disagrees.
Cheryl’s husband Richard, Greg Kinnear, is a self-absorbed motivational speaker who has just gambled the family’s nest egg to promote his book: the Nine Steps to…something or other. As his seven-year-old daughter, Olive, observes later, "Daddy hates losers."
Of course Richard is the only loser in the movie. What, if anything, his dad (Alan Arkin) had to do with that is unclear; he seems like a pretty good guy, though he’s recently become an obscenity-shouting heroin addict. Alan Arkin as Greg Kinnear’s dad? The movie doesn’t care that the casting doesn’t add up; it just has to be funny ! Which it is. But it doesn’t add up.
Rounding out the five is teenage brother Dwayne, who, inspired by something he dug out of Nietzche, has taken a vow of silence until he gets into jet pilot training. He’s made it almost a year and a half. When his resolve finally cracks – as you know it must – he speaks the only word possible.
The movie introduces itself as I have done: one character at a time. Then it traps them all in a yellow Volkswagen min-bus on a cross country trip to take Olive to compete in a beauty pageant. Mis-matched personalities in close confines went dreadfully awry in the Robin Willimas vehicle R.V., but it works here, even if the family’s adventures are a bit precious.
There are a few great details. At a restaurant, Olive asks her mom, "How much can I spend," and that’s true to life. The scene that follows, about the ice cream, is from the heart. But I wanted more painful truth. When Cheryl and Richard finally have their blowout argument, we only hear it through the thin walls of a hotel. I needed to be in that room. I needed something else when Richard finally faces his dad. I needed more when Richard and Dwayne finally have their talk.
The third act, the child beauty pageant, is even more ghastly than you can imagine, and I guarantee you will feel a stab for Olive, and think of Jon Benet Ramsey. Lessons, about not caring what other people think, are learned. Thank God for Frank, with his swollen eyes and bitter tongue. Richard has a way of driving Frank deeper and deeper into a kind of sarcastic Nirvana. Richard admonishes him, "You know, sarcasm is the refuge of losers." "Really?" says Frank.
Little Miss Sunshine is playing, in a limited engagement, at Showplace East. This and other theater and music reviews can be read, listened to, or podcast at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.