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February 13, 2007 > More than a little sunshine

More than a little sunshine

By Joe Samagond

"Little Miss Sunshine" is a dysfunctional-family road movie featuring a ragtag group of relations desperate to get the youngest member to a beauty pageant on the West Coast. An ensemble movie in which every performer is beautifully in synch, often in very awkward ways, it was a hit last year at the Sundance Film Festival. Written by Michael Arndt and directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, "Little Miss Sunshine" dabbles in such "sensitive" subjects as homosexuality, suicide, child beauty pageants, drug abuse among the elderly, and Proust scholarship.

The film begins as young, Olive (Abigail Breslin), is reviewing a Miss America pageant and mimicking the winner's emotional behavior. Her father Richard (Greg Kinnear) is an unemployed motivational speaker desperately trying to turn his nine-step "Refuse to Lose" program into a book deal and a national brand and mother, Sheryl (Toni Collette), is picking her brother Frank (Steve Carell) up from hospital after a failed suicide attempt. As they congregate at the family house for dinner, we are introduced to Olive's older teenage brother Dwayne (Paul Dano) who is on a self-imposed silence and hates everyone and their grandfather Edwin (Alan Arkin) snorting heroin before dinner.

During the less-than-successful family dinner where arguing and bickering ensues, a phone call is received and Olive finds out that due to a drop-out she is now in contention for the Little Miss Sunshine title. Leaving no one behind, the family jumps into their VW wagon- a parody of ruined middle-class hopes - and set off for the pageant where comedy and drama ensue. The journey from New Mexico to California is contrived, but "Sunshine" has an edge to open small wounds and the grace to heal them.

The family's yellow Volkswagen minibus not only provides the setting for most of the movie but also the source of some of its best humor. Between a clutch that won't go to first or second gear and a horn that sounds like it's constantly signaling off Morse code it provides the most laughs.

The litany of comic disasters is complete. Of the cast, Kinnear is the most tedious, Colette the most deep-souled, Breslin the most unsinkable, and Carell the most sublimely funny. This marks Carell's move into semi-dramatic roles and he comes through; ironically, the one-time "40-Year-Old Virgin" seems the most genuine human being in this movie.

A word, too, in praise of Dano's "Dwayne," who says more with muteness than most actors do with dialogue. Dano, 23 turns his silence into a devastating commentary on the idiocy of one's own family. Dwayne knows and isn't saying what the rest of his clan has to find out on their own; that trying to win will only make you a loser, and that being yourself is the only way out of the box.

But, this film is owned wholly and totally by "Olive," the nine-year-old actress named Abigail Breslin, who is nominated for a "Best Supporting Actress" Oscar. The entire film hangs on her emotional vulnerability and she is achingly real in every moment.

"Little Miss Sunshine" finds its own way out of the box with a beauty pageant finale that cheerfully trashes everything such events hold dear. That's an awfully easy target, but you don't mind because by then the film has earned its fellow feeling. Maybe this is the sort of mainstream entertainment that the big studios have forgotten how to make. The movie acknowledges how deeply we sometimes hate our loved ones - and pulls no punches in its comedic depiction - yet retains a deep and unblemished sympathy for its subjects that prevents it from sliding into cynicism.

Rated R

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