Monday, 31 December 2012

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Dir. Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carrell, Abigail Breslin 

On the last day of the year I have reached the final film of my challenge. I feel like a real winner. Which is good, because Little Miss Sunshine is about people striving to be winners. Admittedly, none of the characters get what they want – Olive (Abigail Breslin) is barred from her beauty pageant, her father Richard (Greg Kinnear) does not secure a book deal, Uncle Frank (Steve Carrell) is overtaken as America’s number one Proust scholar, her brother Dwayne (Paul Dano) realises he will never become an air force test pilot and grandpa (Alan Arkin) dies. But they all gradually coalesce as a family with mother Sheryl (Toni Collette). They leave the film happier and more unified than when they started it. 

In the film an ill-assorted and dysfunctional family find themselves hitting the road to travel from Alburquerque, New Mexico, to Redondo Beach, California, in a clapped-out old VW Minivan. Olive has made it through to the finals of the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant (after the winner of a previous heat was stripped of her crown). Sheryl needs Richard there to drive the van. Grandpa insists on coming after he has been coaching Olive. Frank, temporarily staying with them following a suicide attempt, has to come along so that they can keep an eye on him, and likewise Neitzsche-reading teenage Dwayne who has taken a vow of silence until he achieves his aim of qualifying for the air force. They face upsets along the way which culminate in a spot of grave-robbing. The adventures and vignettes along the route are part and parcel of the Road Trip genre; so too are the personal journeys undertaken by each of the characters.
And so according to the goals they set themselves they may all be unsuccessful. Richard starts the film stating that “There are two types of people in this world: winners and losers.” It is his foul-mouthed reprobate father who nuances this later on. He says that “Losers are people who are so afraid of not winning, they don’t even try.” In the end they have to be themselves. Even knowing that Olive is seriously outclassed at the beauty pageant they let her take the stage – and they all run up there to support her. They start as individuals, all focused on their own individual desires. Frank studies Proust. Dwayne reads Nietzsche. Richard echoes Dwayne in that his motivational speaking mirrors the Nietzschean ‘will to power’. Their actual prize is learning to trust and support each other unconditionally along the way. And a large part of this is down to the presence of Olive. You just cannot be horrible to a seven-year-old girl. It’s impossible. She actually is the sunshine that binds the family together. She is the only one who can make her grandpa behave like a human, she hugs her mother at the right time, and she brings Dwayne back from his tantrum when his dreams are crushed. She is wonderfully human when the ‘winners’ they encounter are all freaks, from the smooth agent to the porn-obsessed cop to the monstrous and petty pageant organiser to the actual contestants themselves. Child beauty pageants are freaky as hell, with the spray-tanned, bouffant-haired, hyperconfident little girls prowling around sexually in swimsuits looking like aliens. To be honest if that is the sort of thing that defines being a winner in this world the Hoovers are better off out of it… 

The Chef might have been Little but the Eaters were not Happy
The parts are well-acted. The innocent Breslin as Olive in particular shines, alongside Dano (who has to act without words for most of the film), Arkin’s gloriously badly-behaved grandpa and Carrell’s low-key depressive (cast before Carrell hit the big time with The 40 Year Old Virgin and The Office: an American Workplace). Toni Collette did not really have that much to get her teeth into I felt, and Kinnear’s Richard just reminded me too uncomfortably of William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundberg in Fargo. There was, in truth, a touch of the Coen’s about the whole film. Considering that it deals with death, suicide and broken dreams it is actually a bit of a feel-good film. It certainly makes one happy to be part of a family. 

What have I learnt about The Road?
The roadway network in America is constantly evolving. In Easy Rider (1969) Wyatt and Billy rode almost deserted roads between fields. In Vanishing Point (1971) the roads were busier and in the process of being constructed. In 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine we see concrete multi-lane highways and flyovers 

It is a crime to transport a dead body across a state boundary without a permit. This is not something I had ever personally thought of before, and I am hoping that this knowledge will not prove to be of any real use to me in life! 

Can we go there?
In the original screenplay of Little Miss Sunshine the Hoovers were required to undertake a roadtrip from Maryland to Florida. An east coast roadtrip would have been a nice companion for Easy Rider’s Mexico-Arizona-New Mexico-Louisiana or Vanishing Point’s Colorado-Nevada-California. However, to facilitate filming the journey was changed to a sort of ‘Reverse Easy Rider’: New Mexico-Arizona-California. The Hoovers start off in Alburquerque and head down Interstate 40 to end up in Redondo Beach on the coast. Richard takes a separate detour en route to Scottsdale, Arizona. 

The bulk of the movie was shot in California however. The diner where Olive orders “waffles alamodie” was actually Pann’s on La Tijera Boulevard in Los Angeles. The beauty pageant was not actually filmed in Redondo Beach but in Ventura instead – the ‘Redondo Suites’ were the Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach Hotel. Frank and Dwayne have a heart-to-heart on Ventura Pier. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

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