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LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, Alan Arkin
Directors:  Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1, Pan & Scan 1.33:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  101 Minutes
Release Date:  December 19, 2006

“Everybody just…pretend to be normal.”

Film ****

Put a highly dysfunctional family together for a road trip, and what do you get?  The most cliché-ridden movie of the year?  Hardly.  Little Miss Sunshine is an absolute jewel in a mountain of synthetic rocks; one that dares to seek a familiar destination but by way of the side roads and scenic routes.  And the result is possibly the best film of the year.

Little Olive (Oscar nominee Breslin) gets her chance at a big beauty contest title when the current crown holder she’s behind gets disqualified (“something about diet pills”).  But that’s just the means to the end, which we understand in an early brilliant dinner sequence where we meet her family.

There’s the longsuffering mother Sheryl (Collette), the father Richard, (Kinnear), a motivational speaker who can’t seem to make it work for himself, her uncle Frank (Carell), who has just gotten out of the hospital after a failed suicide attempt, and her older brother Dwayne (Dano), who reads Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence against the family he can’t stand.  And let’s not forget the grandpa (another Oscar nominee Arkin), who got kicked out of a nursing home for his drug use and womanizing (yes, you read that right).

Richard dreams of the marketing deal that will make his self-help system a national phenomenon.  Dwayne wants to fly jets in the Air Force.  The grandfather just likes to cuss, snort his heroin (didn’t he ever see Pulp Fiction?) and give hard-handed advice.  And Sheryl just wants to keep everything together.

That leaves little Olive, the most well-adjusted of the lot, and ensconced in a world I know well, having worked behind the scenes in a few kids’ pageants myself.  It’s a crazy life, with obsessive parents aiding obsessive kids in a way that doesn’t seem healthy most of the time.  But they usually make it through.

Lacking the funds to fly from Albuquerque to Rodondo Beach for Olive’s big chance, the entire family loads up in their old VW bus and hits the road.  And as in most road movies, the road is quite symbolic of life and dreams, and the way the unexpected keeps trying to throw you off track.  And how sometimes when the way is barred, you just have to crash a gate or two.

The joy of the movie is in the experience with these rich, funny, and sad characters who will no doubt remind you of people in your own family.  Maybe not to these extremes, but there are traits you will recognize.  Each one has hopes and dreams, each one has to deal with the disappointment of failure, and in the end, each one finds the ability to push on.  Families can make you crazy.  But they also make you who you are.

As mentioned, two of the cast members got Oscar nods for their work, but really, nominations could have gone to all of them and you couldn’t argue against them.  These are wonderful actors with tremendous chemistry, and together, like the two formulas the movie borrows from, create something even better than the sum of the individual parts.

But I really must give accolades to young Abigail Breslin, who officially gets my Oscar night vote.  I’ve seen far too many cute kids who can’t really act, but she’s not one of them.  Her bright, intelligent eyes and fully realized performance gives a center of gravity to the chaos.

This is the first feature directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who made many hit music videos including The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication”, they bring a tasteful sense to Michael Arndt’s Oscar nominated screenplay.  It’s hilarious and heartbreaking, and very real.  Frequently all at the same time.

Cars wear out.  Time runs short.  Families can and will drive you crazy.  But as Frank sort of muses near the end, these are the things that will have made our lives when we finally look back on them all.  And it’s sometimes the insanity of those closest to you that protect you from the insanity of the outside world.  It sounds like the lesser of two evils…but when you think about it, it’s not really all that bad.

Video ****

This gorgeous anamorphic transfer (pan & scan also included) is pure sunshine.  It’s colorful and vibrant from start to finish, with crisp detail and tones, and no noticeable artifacts.

Audio ***

The 5.1 soundtrack is more than serviceable given that it’s mostly a dialogue oriented movie.  Decent dynamic range and clear spoken words, along with a memorable music finale give this audio some punch.

Features ***

The features are spread out over both sides of the ‘flipper’ disc, and start with two commentaries:  one with directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and the other with them and writer Michael Arndt.  There are four alternate endings with director commentary and a music video.

Summary:

The people you love can sometimes drive you batty, and thank God for that.  Little Miss Sunshine is a warm treasure that will make you feel happy, wistful, and appreciative.  It’s one of the year’s best.

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