300 – Little Miss Sunshine

You know, a decade or so ago, I had a 1977 Volkswagen minibus. Had a couple hundred thousand miles on it and was a tough drive if one wasn’t used to manual transmissions, but it looked cool in a somewhat-ironic way and was, of course, a viable means of conveyance. You’ll find almost the same exact VW in Little Miss Sunshine, with the same wacky orange exterior and weird off-beige interior, but what sets this one apart from mine is that the Hoover family car has such fun problems as a disappearing clutch, a side door that doesn’t close correctly, and a horn that doesn’t quite stop honking. And yet somehow the vehicle manages to hold itself together long enough to travel from Arizona to California and back for the much-heralded Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant for young girls.

One of the two magnificent aspects of the movie is that the family’s comprised of unlikeable people, that is, normal people to whom you yourself might be related. There’s no hero, exactly (save Olive, the kidlet), because each of the members has some kind of negative vibe going on, whether it’s bankruptcy, smoking, muteness, drug use, or suicide. Oh, sure, they’re a regular Manson Family there, except for the killing bit. Anyway, the family has to shepherd young Olive to the pageant one weekend because she learns at the last minute that she’s become a contestant (she finished fourth in an earlier pageant, but third place got sick) and her usual ride for these pageants is unavailable. So the entire family piles into the microbus (without shovels and rakes and implements of destruction – see if you get that reference), owing to a whole bunch of reasons. Grandpa (Alan Arkin) is going, because he’s responsible for teaching Olive the number she’ll do for the talent portion of the show. Dad Richard (Greg Kinnear) is going because he alone can drive the VW; mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) is going because, well, she wants to. And suicidal uncle Frank (Steve Carell) can’t be left alone, but brother Dwayne (Paul Dano) is perhaps a little young to stay home aloneish.

If this were a typical family movie, you’d expect the dysfunctional clan to grow over the course of their journey, to learn to love each other despite all flaws, to bond and harmonize soulfully behind the dreamy Olive. No way that happens here; these people clearly don’t like each other, except Olive, who’s immune (and/or oblivious) to the negative vibes surrounding her family.

A great deal of the entertainment value of Little Miss Sunshine are the wacky adventures that the group gets into during the ride to Redondo Beach, and it’s not just red herrings that filmmakers toss in to distract you from a crappy plot – you can well imagine these things happening to anyone, such as the aformentioned clutch problem. So the movie automatically feels real to you, not like you’re just watching a bunch of actors going through the motions. And then things REALLY pick up once they get to the pageant.

Like I said, everyone’s sort of dislikable. Grandpa is a drug-using, cranky ol’ coot who’s prone to blunt, profanity-laced tirades. Which makes him several kinds of awesome right there. His son Richard is a controlling goof who completely subscribes to the nine-steps-to-success program that he hawks for a living (“Don’t be a loser!”). Cheryl, who somehow holds the family together, chain smokes and seems the very portrait of crass white trash, while her brother Frank is a gay near-suicide who’s been released into his sister’s care. Oh, and then there’s Dwayne, who’s intentionally mute. Nope, not saying a word, no way, not until he enters the Air Force Academy; it’s some sort of discipline exercise.

And at the center of all this weirdness is little, slightly pudgy Olive, played by the wonderful Abagail Breslin, perhaps best known for playing one of Mel Gibson’s strange kids in Signs. Olive is adorable and real, in contrast to other contestants, who are perhaps adorable but quite artificial. Anyway, Olive seems ignorant of the wacky behavior of her relations except in the most abstract terms, as one might expect from an eight-year-old (meaning she’s not stricken by that Hollywood disease of precociousness). Breslin’s a real treat, and she was rewarded for her excellent performance with an Oscar nomination.

I mentioned two entertaining aspects of the movie; the other is that the denouement isn’t a perfect happy ending. Add that to the realistic – often hysterical, mind you – situations in which the family finds itself, while seemingly not behaving out of character, and you have a gloriously funny film.

***1/2

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