Cast: Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin, Abigail Breslin
“Little Miss Sunshine,” directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris with a script by Michael Arndt, is one of the best films of the 2000s that does not get talked about enough. Everyone always talks about “There Will Be Blood,” “No Country for Old Men,” “The Dark Knight,” or the “Lord of the Rings” films. This film deserves to be discussed alongside these other films, even if it is not as grandiose.
I’m not going to go into too many plot points since there are many threads, but the main plot of the film is the Hoover family traveling from New Mexico to California for Olive’s (Abigail Breslin) beauty pageant. Her brother Dwayne (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence until he gets into the Air Force Academy, her father Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker who is trying to get a book sold, her uncle Frank (Steve Carell) is a depressed scholar, her grandfather (Alan Arkin) is snorting heroin and is very vulgar and her mother is just trying to keep sane throughout the drive.
Michael Arndt (“Toy Story 3”, “The Force Awakens”) is the true hero of the film; he makes the audience care about all of the characters, not just the main one or two. They all have flaws and they all have dreams, making them more three dimensional and more like actual human beings. The beginning sequence of the film develops all of the characters in a matter of three minutes through a little montage that ends with a depressed Steve Carell with the last word of the title overlapping his face, indicating to the audience that it is okay to laugh during the dark humor of the film. Too often in comedic films it seems like the writer has to start the film with a hilarious joke to get the audience on board; the problem with this is that when the writer starts off with a huge laugh, it’s really hard to surpass that. Starting “Little Miss Sunshine” with a sort of melancholic tone allows the writer more freedom down the road, since he doesn’t feel like he has to outdo himself.
Like any great film, the poignance comes out through the theme: do what you want to do and don’t be afraid to try it. Her father (Greg Kinnear) is obsessed with the winner’s mentality; he says to her at one point, “There’s no point in entering a contest unless you think you can win.” This single-mindedness makes Olive scared to compete, since she thinks she is going to let her father down. Alan Arkin (“Argo”), probably the most memorable performance in the film, talks to Olive before her beauty contest; he says, “The real losers are the people who are so afraid of losing they don’t even try.” This is the key theme of the film; a person shouldn’t be deterred from doing something on the basis that they might lose. The film critiques the binary notion of “winners and losers.” It’s an especially important film today and it is a must watch.
The film was nominated for Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress, winning Screenplay for Arndt and Supporting Actor for Arkin.