TL;DR: Little Miss Sunshine sneaks up on you like a few rays poking through the clouds. The race to the beauty pageant is a wonderfully subtle, hilarious façade employed by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris to disguise multiple melancholic themes and leave us in a warm, happy place.
Winner of 2006’s Best Original Screenplay Oscar, Little Miss Sunshine packs every second of its 101 minute run-time with slapstick VW Bus-thrashing, expressive odd-ball family moments and plenty of lessons being learned. Admittedly I was not expecting what I was eventually contentedly surprised with when I started watching, the bright yellow “sunshine” poster had me forecasting more of a lacklustre song and dance ditty than a self-aware and tightly-strung comedy drama.
The film follows Olive, 2nd place at the Little Miss Albuquerque pageant and all-round cutie, and the rest of her family: her Dad (Richard Hoover) who resembles a less exuberant version of Tom Cruise’s character in Magnolia, her loving and slightly pushy mother (Toni Collette), her monk-like silent yet mysterious brother (Paul Dano), the seemingly vulgar grandpa (Alan Arkin) and her post-suicide attempt scholar of an uncle as they meander across America to attend Little Miss Sunshine, Olive’s next step to becoming future Miss America.
In the beginning Mum lays down paper plates, produces a takeaway and calls out for Olive and Grandpa. This shows us that they’re a busy family, possibly struggling financially and that O + G can often go off into their own world. This excellent screenwriting shuns obvious and unnecessary dialogue seen in so many modern films (and continues to do so throughout the film for comedic and storytelling effect) opting instead to establish the family dynamic through actions. This only works because the characters are interesting with their own defined personalities, here mum earns the main income and Dad is all promises, Brother has taken a vow of silence, Grandpa got himself thrown out of his old people’s home for living vicariously and Steve Carell’s uncle, though the most educated is the most helpless. Such defined characterization opens the door for clear and believable personal development giving the audience the feeling they’re watching people worth giving a toss about.
Actually, that’s about it. If you hear a father suggesting persuasively his daughter can’t eat ice cream because she’ll get fat and won’t be a winner, and the daughter responds by spilling her heart out to her Grandpa (Alan Arkin also won an Oscar, in my opinion for this particular scene) whimpering “Daddy only loves winners”, wouldn’t anyone want to see that relationship improve? If you knew the nation’s greatest Proust scholar lost his job over a homosexual relationship scandal, attempted suicide and subsequently was embraced by his loving sister who coaxes him back towards happiness, wouldn’t you want to see how it all happens?
On top of all the great characters, the superb pacing and the scale of it all… Little Miss Sunshine is really, really, genuinely funny. All kinds of humour are present from purely visual gags to subtle conversational intonations, in fact one of my favourite moments (which for most was probably absolutely nothing) was when after an unexpected departure, the grievance councillor sees our family into a curtained hospital booth with the FAKEST smile you’ll ever see and speeds off, completely forgetting about said family IMMEDIATELY after the last person enters. The timing was perfect. To me, it was beautiful. I laughed. Aloud. Incessantly.
All in all, Little Miss Sunshine is a really enjoyable, easy to watch film where one can laugh at the absurd nature of child pageantry, absorb a parenting lesson or two and dwell on the importance of family.
It brightened my day, 8/10.