From what I know, there were very few movies my parents saw together that they turned off less than midway through. The 2006 dark road dramedy Little Miss Sunshine, however, was one of them, mainly because, in their own words, the whole thing was so “depressing” (particularly since “everybody was always arguing”) that they couldn’t bear it any longer after the half-hour mark. They may have seen an overly downbeat slog, but finally watching it with my dad (who still gives it a 6/10), I saw one of the freshest, funniest, and most genuinely affecting “feel-good” films in a very, very long while.
And yes, despite my parents’ opinions, this is what I’d consider to be a feel-good movie. Not feel-good in that every single second is filled with shallow, cloying attempts at uplift or sentimentality (which, honest to God, I simply can’t stand), but feel-good in that it presents us with an understandable, yet deeply flawed cast of characters, doesn’t sugarcoat any of their own issues or personal struggles, and ultimately has us cheering for them by the time the credits roll.
There’s a rigorous Type A father striving to build a career as a motivational speaker (Richard Hoover, played by Greg Kinnear); a disaffected teen who’s taken a vow of silence (Dwayne Hoover, played by Paul Dano); a loud-mouthed—and foul-mouthed—grandpa recently booted from his retirement home for snorting heroin (Edwin Hoover, played by Alan Arkin—his performance here deservedly netted him a “Best Supporting Actor” Oscar); a very young, but aspiring beauty queen coached by the aforementioned grandparent (Olive Hoover, played by Abigail Breslin); a gay, unemployed scholar just brought home from the hospital after attempting suicide (Frank Hoover, played by Steve Carell); and a stressed-out mother struggling to take care of everybody in this broken, very dysfunctional family (Sheyrl Hoover, played by Toni Collette).
In the wrong hands, all of these people could have amounted to little more than a cartoonish (and even quite crude) list of stereotypes. Michael Arndt’s screenplay (his first, in fact; later, he went on to pen the scripts for mega-blockbusters like Toy Story 3, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens), however, is honest and mature enough to treat them like actual human beings, gradually letting us sympathize with all of them in the process. Do these people argue more than a little bit? Yeah, they do (particularly towards the beginning of the film), but it’s never something that’s forced into the movie just for the sake of it being more “dramatic”, nor does it outweigh the more comedic, satirical, or even heartwarming elements here.
Little Miss Sunshine’s plot is set in motion when Olive discovers that she’s finally qualified for the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant, which is scheduled to be held in Redondo Beach, California in only two days. As the entire family all live in Albuquerque, and doesn’t even have enough money to get plane tickets, they’re all forced to cram into a shiny yellow minivan together, head down there as fast as they possibly can, and hope for the best (even when the family stops to eat at a diner somewhere, and, in what has to be the most hard-to-watch scene in the entire movie, Richard tells her that eating ice cream will make her too overweight for the competition).
Sounds pretty predictable, right? Actually, despite this basic “family road-trip” formula obviously being done before, it takes more than a few detours from the standard beats you may expect from it. Not many “family” comedies I know of unleash as much clever naughtiness as this one does when Edwin starts giving Dwayne detailed sexual advice (while Olive has her headphones on, of course—when she finally removes them and starts asking what everybody’s talking about, Edwin simply responds with “Politics”), nor does it bring back as many memories of Aunt Edna’s fate in National Lampoon’s Vacation during a certain shocking event. Thankfully, the poker-faced seriousness—and eventual comic absurdity—with which it’s treated prevents it from feeling derivative of that particular movie, or played for simple shock value.
And indeed, as absurd or dark as things get, the film’s characters and events still feel very real, with not a single note ever ringing false. The story takes no easy ways out, doesn’t give its characters what they may have been expecting, and doesn’t even really have the traditional ending you might expect from this kind of movie, yet still succeeds at being incredibly warm and wholehearted.
Anna Rimouse begs to differ, though: writing for the National Review [NOTE: HEAVY SPOILERS IN LINKED ARTICLE], she lamented “The message of Little Miss Sunshine is: Misery loves company. The film is praised as a “feel-good” film; perhaps for moviegoers who like bamboo under their fingernails…. The chances are good you will leave this film feeling worse than ever before. Then, perhaps, you will be more apt to join [the film’s characters] in their quest to tear down everything that is good and decent, and create a damaged society in your own image.”
Not only is her argument completely ridiculous (nowhere in the film is the prospect of “[tearing] down everything that is good and decent” or “[creating] a damaged society in your own image” even remotely hinted at), but she’s clearly failing to see the film’s point: [POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD] that life can really deal you lemons sometimes, or fail to give you everything that you had previously hoped for, but in the end, the bonds of family are really far more important than any of that. [END SPOILERS]
A lesser film would have beat us over the head with this message, or—worse yet—had one of the characters deliver it to us in an irritatingly treacly voiceover, but this one just sits back and lets us take it in for ourselves. As a result, instead of feeling clichéd or forced, it’s genuinely powerful and moving.
Everyone’s performances are fantastic across the board (even Carell’s, who had only just become big Hollywood business with the previous year’s The 40-Year Old Virgin), Mychael Danna’s excellent score is touching without being overbearing, and the direction from first-timers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (a husband-wife team previously known for directing music videos—including the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight”, which won six MTV Video Music Awards—and commercials) is as perfectly grounded as its story. In a sea of Hollywood comedies bereft of any surprises or risk-taking, Little Miss Sunshine is a true breath of fresh air, a beam of light from above that brightens everything it touches. No wonder an Off-Broadway musical was soon made out of it.