Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine is a good film. Alas, it is far from a great one.

The film, which documents an unlikely family road trip to the west coast, follows the familiar path of indie flicks that have more fun creating problems for their characters than they do resolving them. The result is an immensely entertaining experience that rings as hollow as an action caper, if not moreso.

The film quickly introduces us to the family, which could best be described as a collection of screenwriter footnotes. We see a little chubby girl who wants to be Miss America, a suicidal homosexual, a worried mother (and sister to aforementioned homosexual), a brother who has taken a vow of silence and reads Nietzsche, a father who is an aggressive motivational speaker, and a drug-addicted, foul-mouthed grandpa.

In the process of a sharply written dinner scene, we learn the quirks of each character. The homosexual (Steve Carrell) is the foremost Proust scholar in the U.S.; the son wants to join the Air Force; the father (Greg Kinnear) is about to land a book deal; the grandpa (Alan Arkin) was kicked out of a nursing home for snorting drugs.

The screenplay wants to get these people together so they can be funny, so it contrives to get the whole family into a VW bus to California so that the girl can enter the "Little Miss Sunshine" beauty pageant.

They go, and, amidst their whacky adventures, every character winds up losing. See, the movie has a theme: that America is about winning. This is a family of losers. Love them, dammit. Kinnear's book deal falls through, Carrell's character faces the cause of his suicidal tendencies, grandpa... well take a guess. One character's letdown is so creative, that we wonder whether he was given this particular dream specifically so it could be crushed.

Of course, the Bus breaks down (it's a Volkswagen, after all), and does so amusingly.
The film nearly breaks into farce at this point, and offers some of the more hamhanded slapstick I've seen in awhile, before arriving at its beauty pagenat finale.

And this is where the movie falters. Destroying these people was great fun, and the film does so almost seamlessly. I mentioned that the screenplay contrives to get them on the bus. The mechanisms involved in this would have fallen flat in the hands of lesser screenwriting. At every turn, the writing is crisp and the actors deftly avoid the cliches associated with their characters.

Carrell deserves a special nod for his work here. This isn't another "funny guy goes indie" turn. His performance is pitch perfect, and demonstrates an extraordinary timing and grasp of the power of understatement.

The writing, in and of itself, is excellent. The film bucks the recent trend of indy films that have their characters sitting in the same room, mumbling ironic non-sequitors at each other (I'm looking at you "Napoleon Dynamite"). These characters talk to each other, look at each other. If there is a bucket of chicken in the room, they eat it, and come to consensus (or not) as to whether they liked it. The best scenes in the film come when the characters are simply being together.

But yes, the ending. It doesn't work. The film suddenly turns it's satirical lens to the world of youth beauty pageants, a ripe target to be sure, but what has it got to do with this movie? Apparently, it is there to show us that the world is just a series of beauty pageants, as it tells us when one of the characters exclaims that "life is just a series of beauty pageants."

Then, we get a dance sequence so bizarre that it made me feel embarassed for the film. It is a comic miscalculation, an act of desperation tacked onto a film in search of a payoff.

And that's why the film is so empty. The movie has nothing to say to the characters who inhabit it. It offers no solutions. And so, it simply lets them off the hook, as they decide, rather arbitrarily, that things aren't really so bad after all.

For all the skill and craft that went into this film, there is not an organic moment in it. The characters do what they do either because it will be funny, or because it will land them safely in the next plot sequence. Along the way, any sense of truth is lost, and we are left to settle for a sort of edgy sitcom.

If one were to be unfair, there is substantial ammunition for a very negative review of "Little Miss Sunshine". But, I have to admit, I laughed hard enough to ignore the plot mechinations and the cliches. On those grounds, I suppose, I join the chorus of the tasteful in recommending the film.

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