Film-Forward Review: [LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE]

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 (Left to right) Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, 
Steve Carell & Paul Dano
Photo: Eric Lee/Fox Searchlight

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Directed by: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris.
Produced by: Marc Turtletaub, David T. Friendly, Peter Saraf, Albert Berger & Ron Yerxa.
Written by: Michael Arndt.
Director of Photography: Tim Suhrstedt.
Edited by: Pamela Martin.
Music by: Mychael Danna & DeVotchka.
Released by: Fox Searchlight.
Country of Origin: USA. 101 min. Rated: R.
With: Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin & Alan Arkin.

After Grandpa (Alan Arkin) finishes snorting his heroin, he joins the rest of the family for KFC and Sprite at the dinner table, where the conversation quickly turns to Uncle Frank (Steve Carell) and his recent suicide attempt. Sheryl (Toni Collette), a divorcee desperate to make her second family work, proudly states she is “pro-honesty” and explains to her daughter, seven-year-old Olive, that Uncle Frank, America’s preeminent Proust scholar, was unhappy because his love affair with a male grad student ended when said student had his own affair with America’s second preeminent Proust scholar.

Sheryl’s husband Richard (Greg Kinnear), an unsuccessful motivational speaker, tells his daughter the moral of the story is that Uncle Frank is a loser – he gave up on life and this is what happens to losers, while her teenage brother, angsty Neitzsche-worshiping Dwayne (Paul Dano), contributes little to the conversation. The awkward American family tableau is broken upon the news that Olive will be competing in the Little Miss Sunshine contest in California. Previously an Albuquerque pageant runner-up, she is now the default winner, due to “something about diet pills.” Let the road trip shenanigans begin!

With Todd Solondz wielding significant critical appeal, acerbic family satires are a dime a dozen these days. But what makes Little Miss Sunshine stand apart is its emotional core, thanks to a pitch-perfect cast, a fantastic debut screenplay by Michael Arndt, and a strong feature film debut by married directorial team Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris. Most films in Sunshine’s milieu tend to overdose on cynicism, but the intellectual ironies are complemented here by genuine drama, ranging from Richard and Sheryl’s understated marital tension to Dwayne’s fear that Olive will be disparaged for being different from her Little Miss Sunshine competitors. Simple, graceful moments – such as when Olive, fearful of being overweight, asks Miss California if she eats ice cream – balance humor and sentimentality where other films saddle themselves with too much of one or the other.

Sunshine’s biggest surprise is Steve Carell, who has never shown an inkling in The Office, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and The Daily Show that he has the dramatic range to match Toni Collette. It would have been so easy to regard his character, with his many one-liners, as a caricature, but instead he buoys Frank's deadpan humor with tender sadness. Eleven-year-old Abigail Breslin, who plays Olive, is another revelation. Even though each member of the ensemble cast has almost equal time in front of the camera, it's no surprise that the promos prominently feature Breslin's squealing and growling – she is a skillful new talent who can both act and act her age (unlike certain other actors named Dakota Fanning). With so many spotless elements (including a catchy score featuring the group DeVotchka), Sunshine is bound to be the dark horse family drama for this year's awards season. Zachary Jones
July 26, 2006



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