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Little Miss Sunshine

February 3, 2009

This post was published earlier at PassionforCinema.

Who is a loser? The one who tries and loses? Or the one who is so afraid of losing , that they dont even try? Or the one who takes winning and losing in the same stride, being faithful to Rudyard Kipling? The US is a country that is built around a cult of winning. Its a place where winners are feted and losers are scorned. A virtual mini industry has been created by people, promising to help you win, though end of the day, its they who end up really winning. While this win at any cost obsession, has produced some really great people, it also has a larger dark side. It has created people, who feel worthless because they are not winners. It has created a pysche, where you have to kill your own personality, just so that you could win or fit in there. Little Miss Sunshine, is a movie that takes a satiric look at this aspect, with a backdrop of children beauty paegants.

The movie is about a typical dysfunctional family out there in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Richard Hoover( Greg Kinnear), is a motivational speaker, working on something called The 9 Steps to Success, a clear dig on Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits ideology, looking to start his own business in life study. His father Edwin( Alan Arkin), has been kicked out of a retirement home, due to his cocaine addiction, and also has a nasty tongue. He however shares a close bond with his 7 year old grand daughter Olive(Abigail Breslin). Richard’s wife Sheryl( Toni Collette) on the other hand is overworked, having to run the family. Her brother Frank( Steve Carrel) is gay, and has just survived a suicide attempt, after his gay lover has left him for another guy. And her teen son from a previous marriage, Dwayne( Paul Dano), loves Nietzsche, and has taken a vow of silence till he becomes a test pilot.

Olive qualifies for the “Little Miss Sunshine” paegant, being held in California, and her parents and grandfather want her to go. With not much money to fly down, they take the road trip all way down to the venue in their old battered Volkswagen Microbus. Things however go crazy, as first the van breaks down, and they have to push it along. Richard loses an important contract that would have helped him start his business, Frank comes across his ex boy friend, and worse Grandpa Edwin dies in a motel room of drug overdose. The movie is about how the family manages re discover themselves.

At the outset, Little Miss Sunshine is not the standard Hollywood underdog, who wins in a high pitched climax kind of movie. It is more of a dark comedy that deals with dysfunctional families and the all American obsession with winning. But yet the movie does not have much of a depressing tone, except for the part when Edwin dies. Unlike some other movies which dealt with dysfunctional families, here the focus is more on the characters and not on the extra marital affairs.

The biggest strength of Little Miss Sunshine i felt was the characterization. By not exagerating them, and just showing them as normal people, at once the directors make us feel for them. The scene for example when Frank tells to Olive why he attempted suicide, is done in a plain, matter of fact way, without resorting to any unnecessary histrionics, that even though one feels a bit weird of it, you do actually end up emphathizing with him. The characters here are not black, white or grey, just normal people, and that works a lot. Also the tendency to go in for excessive preaching is avoided here.

Another thing that works is the restrained way the movie is shot. Not getting out of hand, not getting too melodramatic, but yet striking the right notes. The scene where Dwayne breaks down, after being told he is color blind, and can’t go for a test pilot. He runs away, and refuses to listen even to his mom. However Olive goes and just puts a hand around him, and he slowly comes back. Beautiful way of telling something without too much dialogue out here.

The movie also is a direct satire on the beauty contests phenomenon. The scene where both Frank and Dwayne, ask Sheryl to prevent Olive from taking part in the contest, as they dont want to see her humiliated, and then Sherly explaining that let Olive just be herself, is quite moving. Also the scenes showing the young kids dolled up, made to mouth pretty phrases, is somewhat reminiscient of the way kids in India nowadays are being presented in reality shows, of course abetted by greedy parents, wanting to make a quick buck.

Richard on the other hand is symptomatic of the average success at any cost mentality. His 9 Habits for Success, seems to be a direct dig at Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits series. For all his bluster and talk, Richard however is not able to make his own life much of a success. He is deeply in debt, his wife runs the household, and his 9 Habits cant prevent him from losing a contract. Richard’s obsession with winning puts off Frank, as he wonders how Grandpa has been able to live with him so far. It also scares his daughter Olive, who is afraid to face her Dad, as he hates losing.

However directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faries, ensure that the movie does not get too dark or depressing, by interjecting many genuinely funny moments. The best of course being the way every one pushes Richard’s car to start it, and then run along to get inside. What really lifted the movie for me was its ending, which does not degenerate into the standard Hollywood ending. No its not dark, its in fact pretty much uplifting, yet the directors do it without resorting to too much hyperbole.

The movie is also helped by some top notch ensemble performances. Barring Greg Kinnear, most of the other cast are not really big stars, but all of them solid performers. Steve Carrel, who was impressive in The 40 Year Old Virgin, is spot on as Frank, giving a performance totally restrained. Abigail Bresnell as Olive is a delight, putting in a totally natural, performance. Toni Collette, who played Haley Joel Osment’s troubled mom in The 6th Sense, is equally effective as the overworked woman, running the household. Greg Kinnear, more famous for his rom coms, puts in a great performance as the winning obsessed Richard, but the scene stealer would be Alan Arkin, as the grumpy, cocaine sniffing Grandpa. One of the best performances, he totally deserved his Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

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