Monday, August 14, 2006

A ray of "Sunshine"

You like that header? I've been working on them to sound more and more lame, so that I can get a job replacing Joel Siegel.

Little Miss Sunshine is, in a word, fantastic. I loved this movie and everything about it. There is not one false note in the entire thing, and anytime the movie seems to be going for schmaltz or the sitcom route out, it doesn't take it. Granted, dysfunctional family "comedies" are a dime a dozen these days, but this one stands out for two major reasons: it doesn't take place at Thanksgiving, and it's actually funny.

It tells the tale of the Hoover clan, wannabe motivational speaker Richard (Greg Kinnear); trying to hold it together mom Sheryl (Toni Collette); horny, heroin addicted grandpa (Alan Arkin, always wonderful to see in a flick); teenage son Dwayne (Break through Paul Dano) who's not spoken a word to his family in literally almost a year; suicidal Proust scholar Frank (Steve Carrell); and child beauty pageant contestant Olive (Abigail Breslin, who is so utterly adorable it's almost sickening). The family is all together when word comes that the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in Redondo Beach, CA has selected Olive as a semi-finalist. The clan grudgingly packs into the yellow VW bus, and hit the road from Arizona to California. Naturally, chaos ensues.

What separates this film is that it's funny in addition to being depressing as hell. This is not a healthy family. And even THEY are aware. But the family all seem to possess this gallows humor that feels ever so appropriate for the trials and tribulations they encounter on their journey. I won't spoil any of them, because half the fun of this movie is seeing what happens next. I will say that there's this very silly moment with a busted horn and a traffic officer. Actually, I should mention that the VW bus is it's own character, providing many moments that can only be fittingly described as "pure hilarity".

The actors NAIL their roles. I always liked Toni Collette, but I've never loved her like I do in this one. Greg Kinnear plays the overly humiliated character well, and proves once again to be a damn solid actor. Steve Carell, the one whom they've been promoting the most in the ads, pulls off a lovely more dramatic turn. Maybe dramatic isn't the right word, I think tragic might suffice. Don't let the fame stop you, this man is a professional, and his role here couldn't be more different than his roles in The Office and The 40 Year Old Virgin. And yet, he nails this one, too. Alan Arkin is funny as the foul mothed older person who doesn't care, which again is a cliche of the genre, but somehow he makes it feel fresh again. The standouts, though, are Dano and Breslin. By barely speaking a word, and still managing to make me believe every beat of his character, Dano almost manages to steal the flick away from seasoned pros. He's complex and knows what he wants, and even though he quotes Nietszche and realizes how pointless life is, you forgive him because he's in high school, and these are the things that high school seniors are supposed to be involved in, not how many friends are in their MySpace or who's stonefacing whom in the cafeteria later on. Abigail Breslin, however, is the true, uncorrupted heart of the flick. It's her journey as well, and she manages to pull off everything an adorable child should do in a movie that isn't rote and done before. I hope this girl continues along this path, and doesn't feel the need to pull a Dakota Fanning, and get too big for her britches. (Or occupy two hours of my time by screaming and being anoying with Tom Cruise).

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, a married couple who have previously made music videos (including the Smashing Pumpkins "1979", of which there is a tiny nod in the flick), their feature debut is almost flawless. The understand the characters' lives, and depth. They tell the story simply, which is something not commonly associated with music video directors. (Says the guy who watched The Rock this past weekend). Working with Michal Arndt's screenplay, they weave a film so well, that it makes you smile without you even realizing it.

Visually, the film looks good, and it has a really good soundtrack by Mychael Danna and DeVotchka. Everything about the film works well within itself, and it all adds up to one of the best experiences I've had in a theater this year.

While describing the film to a friend, I mentioned that it's a lot like the Full Monty, where a group of people in a rather depressing situation in their lives, have to make a journey and in the end, wind up being a little bit better off then when they began. I stand by this assessment. Thinking about the film a week later, I'm still tickled by a few of the gags, and especially the finale at the pageant itself.

Little Miss Sunshine delivers the goods. Believe all the hype you're hearing about the film, because for once, finally, it's true, and the film is worth it.

No comments: