Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine (2006). 101 minutes, Fox Searchlight Pictures. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

A delightfully twisted comedy about the world’s most dysfunctional family on the road trip from hell.

I love dark comedies. The first one I can remember watching over and over was Eating Raoul back in 1982, at a late show in Chicago. I remember thinking, “I can’t believe they made a comedy about killing people and serving them up as food, but man is this funny”. Since then, I’ve come to love the genre. Good John Waters films like Polyester and Female Trouble. The much under-appreciated Heathers. And more recently, Bad Santa.

Little Miss Sunshine is not “sick” in the sense that the above mentioned films are, but I’d definitely say it’s on the “twisted” end of the scale. What’s unique about Little Miss Sunshine is that it is exceptionally well-done. Every main performance in this film is literally Academy Award worthy. The script is top-notch, with eminently quotable lines and memorable scenes. The look of the film is crisp, sharp, colorful, and beautifully composed and photographed.

The opening five minutes of this movie are great. Students of storytelling – study this film’s first five minutes. Now, this is how you introduce characters. We see each character in a brief, one minute or so scene. Each scene occurs after the other. By the time we get to the last character (suicidal brother Frank, played by Steve Carrell), we already know what these people are about. It’s a perfect combination of script, acting, and filmmaking.

The story is basically a darker version of Vacation. The number of family members is the same: Father Richard (Greg Kinnear), mother Sheryl (Toni Collette), teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano), younger sister Olive (Abigail Breslin), Sheryl’s suicidal older brother Frank (Steve Carell), and Grandpa (Alan Arkin). The entire family piles into a breaking-down bright yellow VW bus to drive little Olive from their home in New Mexico to the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant in Los Angeles. This is a family that should not spend five minutes together, much less two entire days crammed in a van.

My favorite character is 15-year-old Dwayne, who has taken a vow of silence until he is old enough to leave and join the Air Force. He counts down the time, in days, on his wall every day. He communicates only by writing on cards. When Uncle Frank, brought home by his sister from the hospital after his latest suicide attempt, asks Dwayne why he doesn’t speak, he writes “I hate everyone” on a card and shows it to Frank. Later, when Frank is bedding down for the night, Dwayne writes, “Welcome to Hell”, before turning out the lights. The scene late in the movie where Dwayne is finally forced to break his vow of silence had me spitting up soda. I had to back up the DVD to watch the scene again, I was laughing so hard. I’d nominate Paul Dano for Best Supporting Actor for that scene alone.

Another great moment is when the van’s horn decides to malfunction at a very inopportune time for the whole family. The little VW bus gives out a never-ending stream of pathetic mini-honks, which causes the car to get pulled over by a particularly foul cop. The fact that the van keeps making little mewing sounds with its horn during the entire scene made tears roll down my cheeks.

And the beauty pageant at the end… oh my god. I saw a special on HBO some years ago called Living Dolls, which went behind the scenes at several real beauty pageants for little girls like the one portrayed in this movie. Little Miss Sunshine does a very accurate spin on those things, and makes fun of them exactly the way they should be made fun of.

I actually thought the finale of this movie was very touching… how this bizarre family that shouldn’t even be together in the first place nevertheless comes together whole-heartedly in unabashed support for little Olive. It’s a very funny scene that is surprisingly heartwarming. That’s a tough thing to do in a dark comedy, but Little Miss Sunshine manages to pull it off.

So far, this is my favorite film of 2006. If you like your comedy nice and clean and silly, then do not see this movie. If, like me, you find humor in things that other people think are sick… if you sometimes feel guilty for laughing at things you know you shouldn’t laugh at… then go see Little Miss Sunshine.

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