Steve Carell, Abigail Breslin, Paul Dano
- Rated R
- Buy the BD
All photos © Fox Searchlight
Reviewed by Andy Kurtz
road trip movie directed by a first-time directing team about a dysfunctional family that includes a mute teen, a heroin-sniffing grandfather, a gay suicidal professor, and a schmuck self-help guru father traveling to a creepy kiddie pageant probably seemed like a bad idea to Focus Features. It’s not difficult to see why the independent studio responsible for some of the best movies of the past few years ultimately dropped the project. Who knew?
After “Little Miss Sunshine” screened at the Sundance Film Festival and became the festival darling to critics and audiences alike, it was snatched up for distribution by Fox Searchlight for $10 million. Taken with the film’s relatively modest budget of $8 million, and the latest box office receipts that triple that figure, Fox Searchlight has made a boatload of cash and somebody at Focus Features is now filing for unemployment.
So is the movie that good? For the most part, yes. “Little Miss Sunshine” is easily one of the best films of the year. Granted, we’re talking about a year that has only included the spring and summer movie season. The best is yet to come as Oscar season approaches, so yes, anything seems good after watching eight months of spring-dumped struggling pictures and summer movie escapist drivel, but “Little Miss Sunshine” seems to be a movie that isn’t likely to be forgotten come award season. “Crash,” a summer release last year for example, managed to win Best Picture this past spring, upsetting “Brokeback Mountain.”
The first thing noticeable about “Little Miss Sunshine,” and where it will no doubt see the most success in winning awards, is the performances. Everyone turns in such unbelievably great performances, and without overshadowing each other, that it’s truly a pleasure to watch. Working with a script by newcomer Michael Arndt, the cast is simply astounding. Alan Arkin as the curmudgeonly grandfather is hilarious and endearing. Paul Dano (“The Girl Next Door”), despite not saying anything for the first two thirds of the movie, brings teen angst to vivid reality. And Steve Carell, the latest comedy heavyweight from “The Office” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” plays the role of a suicidal gay professor of French literature straight, and knocks the performance out of the park.
These, along with solid performances by Greg Kinnear and Toni Colette as bickering spouses, give “Little Miss Sunshine” the best ensemble cast to be seen in quite a while. But it is the young actress Abigail Breslin (“Signs”), playing Olive, the little girl who desperately wants to win the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, who owns this movie from start to finish. Olive is the glue that holds the family and the film together, and Breslin gives a performance that goes well beyond simple cuteness and shows a remarkable amount of range for someone so young. She could easily grab an Oscar nomination and win herself.
The movie does suffer from some issues of plausibility, however. It’s hard to believe, for example, that the parents seem to not have a clue what they’re getting their daughter into with child beauty pageants; events that are not only one of the most despicable things ever concocted, but have been on the public’s radar since the Jon Benet murder. Indeed, this movie has eerily found pertinence as the Jon Benet case has once again found itself splattered on newsstands. The directors spend too much time making fun of these pageants and too little exposing their obvious dementedness (talk about a pedophile’s wet dream), but it is in keeping with the overall light atmoshphere of the film and thus forgivable.
Keeping “Little Miss Sunshine” from dwelling too deep into darker territory was no doubt a requisite to getting the film released, and has obviously helped the film to achieve mainstream appeal and thus make a lot of money, but it may not necessarily be better for it. Some of the more serious issues in the film are dealt with superficially, and it may leave some wondering if the film could have been more if it had not been sold and distributed as lighter summer fare. It seems as though the audience is left trying to force laughs out of moments that aren’t really funny because of the film’s sugarcoated direction. Luckily for the audience, the talented cast is able to convey more emotion in their performances than what the directors may have intended. Whatever it has become, however, there is no denying that “Little Miss Sunshine” still succeeds at being a fun and heart-warming movie-going experience that also manages to have substance.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
The original DVD release of “Little Miss Sunshine” was a bit of a letdown, so it’s nice to see that Fox has gone back to include additional special features for the new Blu-ray edition. All of the previous extras (like the director commentary and alternate endings) still appear, while new ones including a making-of doc (“On the Road with the Hoovers”) and character featurette (“Who Are the Hoovers?") deliver exactly the kind of behind-the-scenes goodies that were left off the first release. Rounding out the set are two music featurettes, deleted scenes, and a bunch of cool webisodes, making this one double-dip that is actually worth the HD upgrade.