"Little Miss Sunshine"
I haven't had this many laughs from a family sitting around a dinner table ever. Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris working from a script by Michael Arndt did that very rare thing in the world of family comedy--they got it right! Kudos to them for keeping it tight, logical and buckle-busting funny. They're a credit to their genre.
Central and side issues appear insurmountable in the Hoover household as all of its problems gets focused around the dinner table--although it begins with mother Sheryl (Toni Collete) paying a visit to the hospital where her brother Frank (Steve Carell) has just been saved from a suicide attempt and, in sheer despondency, agrees to live with her and her family so long as he's willing to share a room with Dwayne, (Paul Dano) a Nietsche-idolizing teen who has sworn a vow of silence until he's accepted into the air force as a jet pilot.
The one who may be having his own sort of mid-life crisis is the breadwinner, Richard (Greg Kinnear) a man trying to enhance his career and income with a 9-step program for success, largely dependent on his lecture about positive thinking and being a "winner." This message is the mantra that defines his approach to life even as his goal is falling apart.
It's all temporarily shunted aside when it comes to 7-year old, 4-eyed Olive's (10-year old Abigail Breslin), opportunity to win -- or, at least to compete in -- the Little Miss Sunshine Beauty Contest in California. Not only is everyone on the same wavelength in bringing this about, but grandpa (Alan Arkin), a rough and rowdy porno-loving miscreant who is living here only because he got thrown out of his retirement home for snorting heroin and who espouses as much sex as you can get, is being allowed to privately choreograph and rehearse Olive's dance routine for the contest.
Without really putting their individual problems behind them, the Hoover saga becomes a road movie as they take off for a thousand miles of highway in their decrepit VW bus for their piece of fame and adulation in the culture of child beauty pageantry that spotlights all that's misplaced in parent-offspring ambition. The outcome will exercise unexpected changes in priorities on this peculiar family.
The story ideas here are only as good as the actors breathing life into them, and that's as delicious as the chocolate ice cream some family members warn plumpish Olive against. This remarkably balanced ensemble is comfortably loony, in just the right places and to a degree that serves up satirical hilarity. When Olive asks uncle Frank why he would want to kill himself, Frank is frank about revealing that it was over losing his boyfriend and his ranking in his academic career as the number one Proust scholar.
After the aruguably best realization of Kinnear's comedic talent; the superb presence and colorations of harried and controlled Collette; Carell's nonchalant deadpan; Dano's standing in for so much adolescent anger; and Arkin's unfailing satirical bite, the artistry of the ensemble gets its heart from the perfection of honesty in the Breslin personna.
A fine production team includes director of photography Tim Suhrstedt, production designer Kalina Ivanov, costume designer Nancy Steiner, editor Pamela Martin, composer Mychael Danna and the up-and-coming band DeVotchka.
No one who sees little Abigail in this film will wonder why she's been so busy since her first appearance in movies as Bo Hess in "Signs" when she was six. She is exactly the anchor of calm and truthful modesty that this family needs; what the beauty competition calls for, and which a very rich movie thrives on. My funny bone thanks all involved.