At first glance the storyline of Little Miss Sunshine appears to be a completely clichéd American independent comedy/drama – a dysfunctional family is thrown together under strained circumstances to go on a road trip. All of the family members have their particular peculiarities, most of them don’t want to be doing the trip and all hell is threatening to brake loose at any moment. And to be honest, this pretty much sums Little Miss Sunshine up. What sets it apart from so many other ‘quirky’ independent films are its appealing characters and the skill in which their relationships with one another are developed.
At the centre of the story is child beauty pageant hopeful Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) who at the last minute has the opportunity to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, providing that her cash-poor family can make the cross country trip and get her there in time. Her father (Greg Kinnear) is a motivation speaker facing bankruptcy, her grandfather (Alan Arkin) snorts heroin, her uncle (Steve Carell) recently attempted suicide and her step-brother (Paul Dano) has been inspired by Frederick Nietzsche to take a vow of silence. The final family member is her mother (Toni Collette) who provides what little stability the family have during the disastrous journey in a VW bus that should have been taken off the road a long time ago.
While the script by first time writer Michael Arndt does teeter on the silly side towards the end of the film, it still maintains its humour, integrity and sincerity throughout. Combining warmth and genuine pain without resorting to a sappy or contrived ending is no longer anything new in the independent film scene but it is always welcome to see it done as well as it is done in Little Miss Sunshine.
The cast are uniformly excellent and it is a credit to feature film debut directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris that they have taken such a diverse ensemble of actors and seamlessly blended their acting styles together. Steve Carell adds himself to the long list of distinguished comedic actors who have made the crossover to dramatic acting with terrific results, Alan Arkin yet again shines as one of the all time great character actors and Toni Collette excels as the emotional core of the film.
There are so many stories about people achieving greatness through hard work, pursuing their dreams and believing in themselves. While these films are inspirational to some, they ignore the fact that for every success story there are hundreds of stories about failure. There are people who do work hard and put their life on the line to achieve what they believe in but still ultimately fail. These people mean well but lack in some cases talent and in some cases luck. Little Miss Sunshine is a film for all those people who have tried and failed. The characters are life’s losers and they provide mirror images of so many of us. There is no great happy ending or profound message in Little Miss Sunshine except to suggest that success is relative, nobody is alone in feeling disappointment and family is important after all – even if they do drive us crazy. Little Miss Sunshine is about losing, failing and the dignity in doing so once you accept that maybe the conventional definitions of success are as hollow and ugly as a child beauty pageant.