The title “Little Miss Sunshine” appearing across the face of the suicidally depressed Steve Carell is proof that irony lives.
Another installment in the great tradition of American road movies, Little Miss Sunshine is one of those “melanchomedies”* that uplifts as it saddens.
Sheryl Hoover (Toni Colette), upon picking up her suicidal brother Frank (Steve Carell) from hospital, is charged with delivering her daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) across state lines to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in California. The whole family is thereafter inveigled in the affair, travelling the nation in their Volkswagen Bus.
Little Miss Sunshine, despite its “disrespectful” practice of featuring not one but two directors in husband and wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris – an act which led to Rodriguez removing himself from the Director’s Guild so that he could put Frank Miller’s name on Sin City** – is an example of consummate movie making. The opening montage establishes each of the characters and their place in the film, providing a firm foundation for what is to come.
In a dinner scene, their characteristics are compounded, as is their dynamic: Sheryl is the determined yet somewhat impotent matriarch; Dwayne (Paul Dano) is the nihilistic teenager under a vow of silence, to which he strictly adheres; Grandpa (Alan Arkin) is a foul mouthed heroin addict; and patriarch Richard (Greg Kinnear), well – you just want to punch him in the mouth and get the hell out of there.
Steve Carell’s Frank is great as the “outsider”. He knows all of these people but is not familiar with their freshest neuroses. His presence in this scene, which makes him in many ways the catalyst for the road trip, makes it bearable for the audience. Frank is a man who reveals parts of himself sentence after sentence that tell us everything and nothing about himself. He tells his story to a captive audience, the leader of which doesn’t care to know about it because he doesn’t want to try to understand something that does not fit into his trite universe. The problem with the triteness of Richard is that it’s engineered by himself and it makes him miserable – ironic for the fact that his ideas are supposed to be a motivational nine step plan for success.
Irony, of course, has a firm foundation in this film and we couldn’t have it any other way, even if this fact renders Richard largely insufferable.
In its later stages, Little Miss Sunshine takes on the tone of “we are family, for better or worse”, but this sentiment is never exposited until you think that the Hoovers have earned it. If Sheryl had come out with that line after the first dinner scene, I could easily have written off the movie right there; fortunately, Dayton and Faris understand that adversity needs to be experienced before anyone can even begin to understand their life relatively. Likewise, an audience has to be given a reason to care, and Little Miss Sunshine is packed with 101 minutes worth of reason.
The arrival at the Little Miss Sunshine pageant is almost anti-climactic, but that is because it has long been clear that Little Miss Sunshine is but a MacGuffin around which the Hoover family revolves. They are what is important, and it is an apt place to provide the penultimate scenes before we can realise precisely why we have been brought here to observe them. “It’s not the destination but the journey” is a cliché that has been well worn precisely because of the truth inherent within.
The discussion of exploitation and creepiness in child beauty pageants is for another arena altogether, but Little Miss Sunshine seems to be a hotbed of discomfort. I can’t say that much more about it, but it is definitely accurate as all of the children on hand (with the exception of Abigail Breslin) are legitimate beauty veterans, performing the acts that they use in their shows and being tended to by their parents. If it makes you feel vaguely sleazy and altogether confused, rest assured: you are not alone. The children aren’t even exploited, because they knew precisely what they were in for with this movie: in the ultimate act of irony, being in this movie was like a win for them.
Perhaps the only problem that Little Miss Sunshine bears is that of coincidence. Coincidence is essential to narrative, and if people cannot respect this then all coincidence will have to be removed from both fiction and reality: you totally are not entitled to meet someone you met in high school entirely by chance at a store and decide that you’ve loved each other all along!
But, like contrivances, you’re not supposed to notice them. The one coincidence that irks – and they are their most irksome in road movies, which is why they are so often comedies – is in a gas station, where Frank runs into the man who left him for another Proust scholar. It seems so unlikely, but proves Frank’s increased resilience and achieves its own bizarre comedic goal: a gay man being caught out with straight porn. The horror!
When disbelief can no longer be suspended but comedy thrives as a result, is it a crime? It depends entirely on individual preference. I felt this, but I was okay with it.
Little Miss Sunshine does not end as a metaphor for the American dream, as Gore Verbinski’s The Weatherman so abruptly did. It just presents a situation where people with reasons to be deeply unhappy realise that, while life may suck, it doesn’t suck totally. That’s cause enough to celebrate, and Little Miss Sunshine is a movie enough to celebrate.