"Everyone pretend to be normal."
“Little Miss Sunshine” may be exactly what you need after a long hot summer. Not because it has inspired you, not because everything about it is perfect, though it very nearly is, but because in some uncanny way the film has found something inside your past, something familiar from childhood or adolescence or middle age that you haven’t thought about in years. How did they do this? By doing everything right. Michael Arndt has written a script that never flags. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have directed with terrific timing, never holding a joke too long. And the entire cast hits the same tone. It is wonderful.
Consider how they begin. Within ten minutes they have introduced six characters and impressed upon us each of their special dysfunctions. We know them completely right away. Richard, the family father, has developed a nine step program that he presents to nearly empty audiences. He exhorts them to be winners, a tough sell since he is himself a loser. Richard’s father, recently thrown out of the Sunset Manor retirement home for undisclosed misbehavior, snorts heroin and trains his nine year old granddaughter Olive in dance routines for the Little Miss Sunshine Contest that is her dream. Mom’s brother Frank has just tried to slit his wrists because the second best Proust scholar in the world just won a MacArthur genius grant. Duane, Olive’s brother, has taken a vow of silence that is to last until he is accepted by the Air Force Academy. Mom, of course is trying to hold the unholy mess together.
With the family in ruins, Richard decides to reach for at least one dream. He packs the group into the yellow VW bus and heads for Olive’s California pageant. Intrigued by silent Duane, the depressed Frank begins to perk up. Whenever things look bleak, and they often do, Mom responds from despair with her promise, “I’ll figure it out.”
What should be a road trip from Hell turns out to be a journey of recovery and transformation – not too much of it, mind you, that would ruin the fun. The beauty of this family is their ordinariness. They really are just like the rest of us with just as many problems, and a few victories, at the end as they had at the beginning.
There are no losers in this cast. Toni Collette manages to be a superbly ordinary, beleaguered mother who is still the rock at the center. Greg Kinnear is a lovable loser; Alan Arkin a grand old crochet; Steve Carell is endearing as the depressed professor who listens well to everything he hears, and Paul Dano conveys more feeling through silence than you will see in the most trenchant of dramas. Abigail Breslin is serious and beguiling in her role – no cuteness for her, just good acting. Pulled over by a cop, someone begs, “Everyone pretend to be normal.” I hope not, not ever for this family.
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