Family is a weird beast. The weirdest one I’ve ever met was my friend Jessica’s new in-laws, when I went to her wedding reception back in June. Not because they were crazy or dysfunctional. That I can handle. No, these people were perfectly normal. Everybody got along swimmingly, the kids calmed down when they were asked, and they were all just so gosh-darn nice.
Little Miss Sunshine is not about a family like that. It’s about a family I recognize. One that’s not afraid to wear its crazy on the outside, that functions within its dysfunction, that looks at the rest of the world like it’s the insane one. They yell and fight and go all passive-aggressive on each other, but when the chips are down they come together because that’s what families do.
And it’s easily the funniest thing I’ve seen all summer.
The Hoover family is an interesting one. There’s Richard (Greg Kinnear), a motivational speaker who is the patriarch of the family, and in the midst of attempting to get a book published on his nine-step program. Sheryl (Toni Collette) is the mother, once divorced and trying to hold the family together. Dwayne (Paul Dano) is the sullen teenager who’s taken a vow of silence until he reaches his goal of being a test pilot in the Air Force. Olive (Abigail Breslin) is the little bundle of energy whose quest to win a beauty pageant drives the family from Albequerque to Redondo Beach. Grandpa (Alan Arkin) has been kicked out of a nursing home for snorting heroin and made it his goal to get Olive ready for the talent portion of the competition. And Uncle Frank (Steve Carell) is a suicidal gay Proust scholar.
This movie is all about the relationships amongst family members, and as such, the performances are paramount. All the actors here take their characters and make them work, so that even the ones who seem holier-than-thou at the beginning grow on you.
Steve Carell really stands out. After great comedic performances in movies like Anchorman and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, he’s got a much more dramatic turn here and proves that he is one amazing actor. Frank has basically had everything that was ever important to him yanked away, and now can’t even be allowed to sleep alone. Carell nails him from the first scene, and keeps it up with a dry, sarcastic sense of humor and a very funny way of running.
Richard, as a motivational speaker, has a nine-step program he’s practically convinced will turn the world around, and won’t shut up about it. He constantly talks about what makes a loser and a winner and has no problem holding up his family as examples of both. He seems blissfully unaware (or is aware and just doesn’t care) at how much everybody hates hearing about it. The scene where he nearly gives his seven-year-old daughter an eating disorder is classic.
Abigail Breslin is just adorable as Olive. She’s obsessed with pageants. She loves them. The first time we see her she is watching a taped one, mimicking the winner’s happy movements. And she is convinced it is this dedication that will win her Little Miss Sunshine, despite the fact that she looks like a normal seven-year-old girl and the others look like miniature supermodels. It’s that innocence that makes her so endearing.
Grandpa is hilarious, having reached that stage in his life where he just doesn’t care any more. He’ll do what he wants and say what he wants, much to Richard’s chagrin. The movie’s R-rating comes solely from his mouth. However, he loves his grandkids and dotes on Olive.
Although the road trip brings out the frayed bonds of the family’s relationship, it also reties them. Their common goal is to get Olive to Redondo Beach in time for the pageant, and as mishap upon mishap piles on them they only become more determined. Thus, the climax at the talent portion of the competition is as much an accomplishment for the family as it is for Olive.
Despite all that’s happened, where you’re on the brink of tears one minute and falling out of your chair laughing the next, it’s both funny and empowering, embracing that which makes us different and celebrating it without caring that the rest of the world probably thinks you’re stark raving mad.
God bless movies like Talladega Nights, which are wonderfully dumb comedies that provide quoting contests amongst friends for months to come. But bless even more the comedies like Little Miss Sunshine, which touch your heart even as they’re tickling your funny bone, and making you laugh all the harder for it.
From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies. This is one of the reviews I originally wrote during that time.