Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Little Miss Sunshine

I avoided seeing this movie as long as I could. The title gave me cavities. The premise sounded tired. No one in the cast could lure me into the theater. The last good road movie I saw was Thelma and Louise.

Then I heard an interview on NPR on February 9 with Jonathan Dayton, one of the directors of Little Miss Sunshine. I heard him talk about the reasons he and his directing partner Valerie Faris were captivated by the script by Michael Arendt, and suddenly I had to see it. I don't recall the detail, I only know that by then it was no longer in any theater near me, and I finally wound up renting it. Tonight I had time to watch it. The credits rolled only 15 minutes ago; now I'm writing this review, because now I understand all the awards and the fuss. Little Miss Sunshine is a wonderful, wonderful movie.

Greg Kinnear plays the paterfamilias of a wreck of a family. His first line in the film offers us its premise: "There are two kinds of people in this world, winners and losers." The film is an examination of winning and losing, of love and loss. His family is populated by aspiring winners: he plans to be the next Tony Robbins, his brother-in-law plans to be the world's foremost Proust scholar, his son plans to be a fighter pilot (in a beautifully restrained performance by Paul Dano), his daughter (Abigail Breslin) plans to be Miss America. Only his wife (played by Toni Collette) and Grampa (Alan Arkin) lack high ambition, and they plant their feet firmly in reality: hers the reality of careworn, exhausted motherhood and his an audacious ,tomorrow-we-die recklessness of old age.

At the center of the film stands a yellow Volkswagon bus, a loser of a vehicle if ever there was one. Like the Starship Enterprise, our heroes travel upon it to strange planets; surely nowhere visited by Kirk or Picard was any weirder than the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant pictured in the film. The detail in the Dayton interview that caught my attention was the fact that all the beauty pageant people are real: those are not actors on the screen, but real mamas and papas and tiny kabuki creatures from Pageant Land.

That's the key to the pleasure in this film: it may be fiction, but it stays very close to the real. The pageant is over the top, but only in the way that pageants are over the top. The bus is a disaster, but only in the ways that ancient VW buses are often disasters. The script never went for the quick laugh; laughs build slowly in Little Miss Sunshine, building and building until it's laugh or die.

This film describes the humor and the awfulness of everyday life. Real family life often feels like a bad trip, and our choices are laugh or cry. Little Miss Sunshine pursues the zen of loserness, the triumph of defeat.

Go. Laugh. Thumb's up.


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