Road Trip!

Little Miss Sunshine sounds like the title of a movie your parents rented when you were little, starring Shirley Temple in the title role. Really, nothing could be further from the truth. This is the latest in a recent spate of quirky independent films which have gained both critical praise and the attention of movie-going audiences. The opening minutes quickly introduce the Hoover family individually before bringing them together around a dinner table, and then launching them into the main thrust of the plot.

There’s Richard, the father, a motivational speaker who never breaks character, struggling to support his family off of the limited marketability of his “9 Steps to Becoming a Winner.” Sheryl, the mother, struggles to hold the family together and keep her cool while pretending that she’s kicked her smoking habit. Dwayne, the 15-year old son who dreams of going to the Air Force Academy, has taken a vow of silence after reading the nihilistic works of Nietzsche. Frank, Sheryl’s academic brother, has just attempted to kill himself after an unrequited crush on one of his male graduate students caused his life to spiral out of control. Grandpa, Richard’s father, has been kicked out of his nursing home for snorting heroin. And Olive, the bespectacled 7-year old whose dream is to win a beauty pageant.

When Olive becomes a contestant in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant several hundred miles away, the whole family piles into their bright yellow Volkswagen van and head for California. On this trip from hell the Hoover family will move heaven and earth in order to get to their destination.

Really, there is nothing especially unique about the set-up. This film’s brilliance lies in its original execution. Each member of the Hoover family will be brought face to face with their weaknesses, fears and faltering dreams. But those moments of ultimate despair and loss, when each one has been emptied of hope or happiness, only serve to strengthen their damaged connections with each other. At the center of all of this is Olive. She is an almost perpetual ray of . . . well, sunshine. Her all but unshakeable joy and profound innocence holds the key to this family’s redemption.

If the movie thus far sounds overbearingly upbeat, that is simply a testament to the dichotomy it represents. Little Miss Sunshine is, without a doubt, a dark comedy. Its characters and situations are funny because they are so outrageously bleak. And yet, few dark comedies are so unashamedly heart-warming.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking aspect of the film, however, is the wry undercurrent of biting social commentary apparent in the premise. The entire concept of a child beauty pageant and the self-conscious, skin-deep self-image it promotes receives a long, hard look from the filmmakers. The contrast presented by the imperfect family seeking redemption amidst a crowd of freakishly perfect juvenile supermodels is nothing short of disturbing. And the statement made by Olive onstage during the movie’s climax provides an unflinching commentary on our superficial culture.

Little Miss Sunshine is one of the funniest movies we’ve seen in some time. It is original, exuberant, surprising and uplifting without being saccharine or trite. It acknowledges the realities of life without being cynical, and it is positive without ignoring the existence of painful and trying circumstances. That is a delicate balance to walk, and we can’t remember the last time we saw it done this well.

  • Co-reviewed with Randy

~ by Jared on September 14, 2006.

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