Little Miss Sunshine is one of the best films of the past two decades. It’s one of those quiet comedy-dramas about family that sticks with you long after you’ve watched it. Maybe it’s because most people’s families are not nearly as weird as the one portrayed here, so you leave the movie feeling a little better about your life. Also, Steve Carrell is the best.
This film is a perfect storm. If any one thing were changed, it might not have done as well as it did. This is a family-drama-meets-black-comedy-meets-road-trip movie populated by some off putting characters (Grandpa is a heroin user; the older son doesn’t speak for most of the movie; Dad is a jerk). There are several awkward or downright uncomfortable situations (Dad attempts to fat shame his seven-year-old daughter; Grandpa dies, and the family sneaks his dead body out of the hospital; the daughter performs a very suggestive dance routine choreographed by Grandpa). It’s far from a home run, and yet somehow it resonated with audiences and gained critical acclaim.
What sells Little Miss Sunshine is the cast. This is such a great ensemble, who first and foremost feel like a real family. Not a family I’d particularly want to be a part of, but a family nonetheless. Abigail Breslin plays little Olive, an ordinary girl who qualifies for a beauty pageant in California after being entered in a qualifying competition by her aunt. Due to a number of convenient movie reasons, her entire family must accompany her from New Mexico to SoCal in their VW Bus. Toni Colette and Greg Kinnear play Olive’s parents, an unhappy couple close to buckling under financial stress. Kinnear is especially prickly, because his character is such an arrogant jerk for most of the movie, but thankfully Colette balances him out by being a genuinely good parent. Paul Dano plays Olive’s teenage brother, who has taken a vow of silence. The actor does a great job considering he doesn’t speak for probably three quarters of the movie, the only thing clouding my view of his performance is that he’s played quite a few jerks and creeps since this, and I can’t get those roles out of my head.
But the real stand out roles here are Alan Arkin, as the drug addict grandfather, and Steve Carell, playing a gay man recovering from his recent suicide attempt. Arkin is absolutely perfect. A lot of people look at this win as a “lifetime achievement award” given how often Arkin was overlooked as a younger actor. Even if it’s true, they could have awarded him an Oscar for a lot worse. This is a well rounded character, shown warts and all. Sometimes he is doling out very un-grandfatherly advice (he tells his grandson to “Fuck a lot of women.”), but other times he actually acts like a supportive grandparent (these scenes are almost exclusively shared with Breslin). As abrasive as he is throughout a lot of the movie, it’s heartbreaking when he dies because the audience has really come to love him. Steve Carell’s performance is more of a surprise. In 2006 Carell was a comedic actor mostly known for his work on The Daily Show, the mega-hit The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and the mediocre first season of The Office. It was unclear if he had the dramatic acting chops to pull off this role. Now that seems silly, because obviously he is a gifted actor. Little Miss Sunshine certainly helped put him on the map as far as more serious roles go. Curiously he stuck with comedy for the duration of The Office, but I’m glad he’s come back around to more serious films. (Foxcatcher is tough to watch, but Carell is amazing in it.)
I hadn’t watched Little Miss Sunshine since its release, but it still holds up, in my opinion. An excellent ensemble cast helps legitimize the weirder aspects of the story, and the feel good ending never feels forced. You get the sense that these actors really are family, and that their lives are going to go on in their imperfect way, as life does.
This indie darling was a critical and box office success when it was first released. The story is fun: Abigail Breslin plays Olive, a young girl asked to participate in the finals of the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. Her family decide to let her compete and must drive across America to get to California in time for the show. Along for the ride are Olive’s parents, Richard and Sheryl (Greg Kinnear and Toni Colette), Sheryl’s suicidal brother Frank (Steve Carell), Olive’s brother Dwayne, who has taken a vow of silence, and their crude Grandpa Edwin (Alan Arkin). The road trip lets this family bond like they never have before, unearthing old wounds and finding some new ones.
The cast is very interesting for this film. This doesn’t seem like a film any of them would be appearing in. Steve Carell was known for his role as Brick in Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and he had done the first couple of seasons of The Office. Playing Olive’s suicidal uncle was quite a departure for him. It is a much darker role than anything he had done before or since, for that matter. Greg Kinnear as well has mostly been known for light hearted romantic comedies. Playing the patriarch of this family was something foreign for him. He actually plays a jerk in this film most of the time, and it is quite a departure from anything I had seen him in before. By far the best performance in this film is Alan Arkin as Grandpa Edwin. Olive’s grandpa is a crude man who loves porn and cursing. He dies halfway through the film and that is about the time I started to lose interest in it also. Arkin is fantastic in the role and rightly received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance.
I am really struggling to write much about this film. It was ok, not worth the amount of praise it received when it was first released. There are some good performances, particularly from Alan Arkin, and Abigail Breslin is cute as the young wannabe pageant contestant. I feel like much of the cast is wasted in a film like this, though. You have a cast who have been in some of the best comedies I can remember, but the film is not that funny at all. I get that Steve Carell would want to branch out and try other things, but it is such a departure from what he is good at, I felt a bit disappointed he wasn’t funny at all.
The film does do a god job of showing how batshit crazy these little girl pageants are, though. At the time, not much was really known about these events, but the prevalence of reality shows and girls like Honey Boo Boo have really shined a light on these beauty pageants. Little Miss Sunshine also does a good job of showing how stupid these shows are.
Little Miss Sunshine is an ok film, but not worth the praise it got, in my opinion.