Sunday, August 27, 2006

MOVIES: 'Little Miss Sunshine'

Everybody’s family is screwed up. How much is just a matter of perspective.
The warm and witty comedy-drama “Little Miss Sunshine” tosses a family of impossibly dysfunctional behavior together in a battered VW van and hits the road. Often hilarious and heartbreakingly honest in the same scene, it’s one of the best movies of the year so far.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingIt’s like a cross between “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.”
You’ve got dad Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear), a relentlessly optimistic would-be self-help author, frazzled mom Sheryl (Toni Collette), debauched, drug-snorting Grandpa (Alan Arkin) — and the kids, perky young Olive (Abigail Breslin) and sullen, silent Dwayne (Paul Dano). When Sheryl’s brother Frank (Steve Carell) tries to kill himself and fails, he ends up part of this slapdash family.

What brings all these damaged folks together is 7-year-old Olive, a hopeful beauty queen who ends up nominated for the “Little Miss Sunshine” pageant in California. The entire cash-strapped family decides to drive out from their New Mexico home for Olive’s contest – but life has a habit of interfering when anybody has plans.
It’s yet another in that time-honored cinematic tradition, the road trip movie. Yet “Little Miss Sunshine” rarely travels in the expected direction.

It’s often satirical and features some outlandish comedy, but the emotional tangles of family ties ring true. Despite their awful squabbles, in every scene you still feel the family’s buried love for one another, and it’s shown in a way that never feels like you’re being force-fed sentiment.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingWhat’s particularly impressive about “Little Miss Sunshine” is that it’s a debut film for screenwriter Michael Arndt and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. “Sunshine” sure doesn’t feel like a first movie – it brims over with a quiet confidence, combining elements of the movies of Wes Anderson, Cameron Crowe and a little whiff of Frank Capra’s hopefulness.

A story filled with such shrill, burdened characters could be unbearable in the wrong hands. But one of the better ensemble casts to come along in a long while make each of them sympathetic.

Kinnear is tremendous, coming off at first as an egocentric bully and gradually showing his insecure, kinder side. Carell (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”) continues to amaze with his acting chops. His quiet, restrained performance here as a suicidal, gay and recently fired scholar takes a quirk-filled notion and turns it into a living, breathing role.

Arkin, as the foul-mouthed, porn-obsessed grandpa, is indispensable, and Breslin, a mere 9 years old, is one of the more honest and appealing child actors I’ve seen in recent years.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThe sadness and humor in “Little Miss Sunshine” are sometimes interchangable, and yet that’s what makes it linger in the mind longer than most comedies.

The firm direction and quotable script is backed by sweeping, light-soaked cinematography that evokes the lonesome beauty of the open road, and a sterling soundtrack of gently askew folk rock.

You’ll think about the Hoover family long after they’ve left the screen. “Little Miss Sunshine” is a winner. It understands life isn’t always simple, but it can be beautiful anyway.

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