IMDB #204 Little Miss Sunshine

Words used by real-life film critics to describe today's countdown entry, 2006's Little Miss Sunshine: "funny" "touching" "gracefully written" "wonderful" "riotous" "tender" "brilliantly acted" "both hilarious and bold" and on and on and on.

My question: What film, exactly, did these critics see, and what were they imbibing while viewing said film?

Followup question: How on earth do I agree with Owen Gleiberman about this? What is happening?

The Key Players:

First time directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris cut their teeth on music videos, most famously "Tonight Tonight" by The Smashing Pumpkins. Based on what I know of their work (which is just this movie), I assume their marriage is nothing but shrill, hateful arguments and awkward silence.

Screenwriter Michael Arndt is also a first-timer after paying his dues as Matthew Broderick's personal assistant. His next project is the upcoming Toy Story 3, so look forward to Woody snorting heroin.

The cast is a relatively star-studded affair for such an "indie" project: Greg Kinnear, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin, Toni Collette, Abigail Breslin, and Steve Carrell play the so-quirky-you-might-just-throw-up-a-little family at the center of the action.

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The Story:

Even though they have two hours to identify them, the filmmakers decide to define each family member by a few specific details.

Kinnear, the dad, is giving a lame presentation of a lame self-help routine that's all about nine steps and winners/losers. He hates losers, values winners. Collette, the mom, smokes and argues with people on the phone (her profession is never stated, despite being the family's primary source of income while Kinnear tries in vain to get a book deal. Whatup with that?).

Arkin, the grandpa, curses a lot (whoa! How edgy.) and snorts heroin (Quirk alert! What capricious individualism!). Dano, the son, wants to be a jet pilot (how...normal?) and has taken a vow of silence until he becomes one (there it is!). Breslin is of course the titular beauty pageant hopeful, and has no character beyond wanting to dance in said pageant and a handful of little kid tropes.

Finally, Carrell is Collete's brother- he's the world's foremost Marcel Proust scholar and has recently attempted suicide after being rejected by one of his male graduate students for the world's second-most Proust scholar. Yes level of relative Proust-scholarship is apparently that simple to identify and rank.

Got all this? Breslin gets into the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, prompting them all to road trip to California in a yellow VW Minibus. That's the whole plot.

The Artistry:

I guess, in an effort to stick to their strengths, Dayton and Faris decided to make Little Miss Sunshine into one long music video- the band Devotchka adapted their song "How It Ends" into the majority of the score, along with a few other songs (notably "Chicago" by Sufjan Stevens). It worked well enough the first time I saw the film, less so now that I'm familiar with the beautiful song itself (which on its own has more impact and dramatic gravitas).

Aesthetically LMS is perfectly well made- it's nicely shot in the desert landscape, and it's even paced snappily. A fine-tuned adventure movie.

It's just that every single character sucks. Does that sound harsh? Let's go back down the list:

Breslin I'm neutral on, but movies assume that little kids are inherently likeable. Nope. She's got ear-piercing kid-voice, asks some corny naive little kid questions, and has nothing else to define her, sorry. Kinnear plays a terrible father, a judgemental boor, and a pathetic motivational speaker. Carrell and Dano get the most mileage out of standard depression and teen angst tropes, but the "quirky mcquirksalot" angles for both of them fall flat: Proust comes up way too much and the silence gag gets old very quickly. Collette is given the thankless Marge Simpson role, only shrill and loud, and it goes predictably.

But the Oscar-winning (!) performance of Arkin is the worst. He curses, he won't shut up, he does drugs OMG, and he's at least a little homophobic. He has exactly two scenes where he shows compassion and spends the rest of his forty minutes or so being the most annoying thing in the film. This is how badly the Academy didn't want to give Eddie Murphy an Oscar that year, people.


After some mechanical trouble that leads to the iconic running starts needed for the minibus, the family stops for the night only to find Arkin dead in the morning.

Because they can't leave the body at the hospital, and dealing with it takes too much time to make the pageant, they quite naturally decide to sneak the corpse out the window and throw it in the trunk. Then the horn starts malfunctioning and beeping on its own.

This leads inexorably to what is without a doubt the Worst Scene of the Countdown so far: A policeman pulls them over for the horn and we wait agonizingly as the horn blows, Kinnear mugs like a fool, the cop nearly discovers the body but insteads finds porn magazines Arkin had bought the day before (what a character, you guys!).

Just hit me with something. Also Dano is randomly revealed to be colorblind and thus ineligible to be a jet pilot. Woe.

Anyway, they get to the pageant, which is insane and gross like pageants are, and Breslin nearly gets kicked off the stage during the talent competition for doing a tame striptease to "Super Freak." The whole family comes up and dances with her, they get banned from future California pageantry, and ride away home- no problems solved or lessons learned, but totally edgy and independent to the max!


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I bet you could guess. This seems like what Fox Searchlight Execs dream an "indie" feature to be like: curse words, bright colors, road trips, and one marketable star (Steve Carrel was fresh off The 40-Year-Old Virgin at the time).

I know that there's allegedly a heart to all this, and I'm sure everyone involved genuinely thought so, but you can't hide behind the guise of "family" unless you create one that could actually exist. Or as (gulp) Owen Gleiberman put it, "Sorry, folks, but these are not organic characters; they're walking, talking catalogs of screenwriter index-card data."

The Legacy:

As mentioned, Arkin won an improbable Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance, and Arndt also won a statue for the screenplay.

Many of us also were gripped by a deathly fear that it would beat The Departed for Best Picture as well, until the card was read at last. There was a general concern that it would inspire similar Oscar bait, and the following year's Juno seemed to validate it- would there be a never ending parade of affected dialogue and laughably mannered quirks? But recent years have found such films less successful.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

There's a scene with Dano and Carrell near the end that's the most human moment, but I couldn't find it- so here's the video for Devotchka's "How It Ends" instead. Great song.

Leftover Thoughts:

-If you're curious, the old Worst Scene of the Countdown was Faye Dunaway and William Holden's awful love scene in Network.

-Hollowest note of many: Carrell at some point looks at a full-page ad in a paper for his rival's "Surprise Marcel Proust Best-seller" and is chagrined. Are we supposed to believe that Proust scholarship is a hot-selling ticket, and that the publishers of same take out full page promotional ads? This is a thing that happens?

Coming Up...

203. Rope

202. Duck Soup

201. The African Queen

3 Response to "IMDB #204 Little Miss Sunshine"

  1. Cody-B says:

    The message of the film was that you should stick with your family through anything. At the beginning everyone was miserable, nobody really talked or liked each other. In the end everyone did something as a family, they did something proactive and even though it squashed silly little olives dream it was meaningful for the family.

    I do agree with you on the characters being rather stale. It was like they were given 3 aspect each to define them. But in retrospect those aspects where rather interesting. (I personally liked the son's whole get-up. Him wanting to be a jet pilot, his silence, and his failed colorvision.) Normally it would be something like, successful, sexy, and silly.

    I probably suffer from "Awards vision" on this a little bit- without the Best Picture nomination I don't think I'd be as hard on it.

    The cast did do a good job of selling these people as a family, but the story didn't really tell me why they would like each other. It just oversold the earlier acrimony and then didn't resolve any of it.

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