'Little Miss Sunshine'

Steve Carrell stars in 'Little Miss Sunshine.' (Fox Searchlight)
"Little Miss Sunshine" is a dysfunctional-family-on-a-road-trip movie. And there's more going on here than in the "National Lampoon's Vacation" movies. The story here is not about a vacation, but about trying to make a little girl's dream come true.

"Little Miss Sunshine" is a dysfunctional-family-on-a-road-trip movie. And there's more going on here than in the "National Lampoon's Vacation" movies. The story here is not about a vacation, but about trying to make a little girl's dream come true.


Olive (Abigail Breslin), a starry-eyed 10-year-old, wants to be a beauty pageant winner. Her coach is Grandpa (Alan Arkin), whose bad habits include pornography and snorting heroin. His son, Richard (Greg Kinnear), dreams of being a self-help god, but stands in need of help himself. Richard wants to sell his nine-step, not 12-step, method of turning people from losers into winners.


Olive's mother, Sheryl (Toni Collette), is stressed about her brother Frank's recent suicide attempt. Frank (Steve Carrell), depressed over the loss of his lover to his rival, is in household to insure he will not try to kill himself again. He rooms with his nephew, Dwayne (Paul Dano), who is observing a vow of silence until he gets into the Air Force Academy.


All these people are damaged goods. Keeping them far away from each other would seem to be a good idea, but a phone call prevents that.


Olive is given a chance to compete in The Little Miss Sunshine pageant in Redondo Beach, Calif. The family lives in New Mexico, and Olive needs to be taken to the pageant. She needs Grandpa to help coach her, but he doesn't drive. Sheryl drives a two-seater car, and the other family vehicle is a stick-shift VW bus, which she can't drive. Richard doesn't want to go because his book deal is about to come together and he needs to be home to get the call. Frank can't be by himself for fear he may try to kill himself again. Dwayne just wants to sit in silence in his room. 


So … the whole family ends up on this long, strange trip.


On the open road we see the family in full bloom. Richard is nothing short of mean and full of hate toward anyone he thinks is weak, which includes Sheryl. Dwayne is not just silent, but sullen, full of disdain for his father. Frank aches for his former life as a university professor teaching trivial things about Marcel Proust. Grandpa's just full of vinegar and sexual advice for Dwayne. 


Poor Olive seems to be the only person not marked in some way. 


On the way, however, the status quo changes. People get more damaged, but there are signs of growth as the road becomes a means of self-awareness. This helps when the family gets to the pageant, and those most damaged come to see the pageant as a possible means of damaging Olive. Will the family let her get hurt in a way that will turn her into people like them?


This movie includes a great cast that brings tremendous performances to the screen. Most notable is Paul Dano as Dwayne. He is strong in a role that requires him not to speak. His hangdog facial expressions communicate in ways words cannot.  Abigail Breslin puts some reality, not cutesy, into her performance, giving us an Olive that is everything a little girl should be. When she is grouped with the other contestants at the pageant, she shines in a way that overshadows the phoniness of the other girls.


"Little Miss Sunshine" is advertised as a movie "with brains and heart." The film actually re-enforces the truth of the power of family. Family can be a place where people are nurtured, as what happens to Olive. Family can also be a place where people are stunted, which is what happens to everyone else.


In family, our best and worst come out.


"Little Miss Sunshine" will move you to cheer for Olive—not that she would win, but that she would rise above what is around her. 


Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.


MPAA Rating: R for language, some sex and drug content.


Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris


Writer: Michael Arndt


Cast: Olive: Abigail Breslin; Richard: Greg Kinnear; Sheryl: Toni Collette; Grandpa: Alan Arkin; Frank: Steve Carell; Dwayne: Paul Dano.


The movie's official Web site is here.


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