Release Date:  July 26, 2006 (limited)
Rating:  R (for profanity, some sex and drug content)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  101 min.
Directors:  Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Actors:  Steve Carell, Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, Abigail Breslin, Paul Dano

Much about the independent film “Little Miss Sunshine,” the latest summer sleeper hit, is formulaic and clichéd. The dysfunctional Hoover family, thrown together against their will in an awkward road trip, moves beyond their conflict and comes together for a common cause. In the process they all learn a little something about themselves and each other. Yet, near brilliant acting by a colorful cast has deservedly won the film high marks from critics across the country.

Part of the reason that movies like this are successful is almost every one can relate to them. Who hasn’t been on a road trip in a car that left a lot to be desired? Who hasn’t been forced to spend time with people who weren’t all that pleasant to be around? Who doesn’t think they have at least one family member who is a bit of headache? The trick is to portray the wacky band of travelers, flawed though they may be, with a certain amount of sympathy.

Here “Sunshine” succeeds in spades. Dad Richard (Greg Kinnear) is struggling to motivate his career as a motivational speaker. Richard, addicted to his self-actualizing mantras, doesn’t seem to realize the emotional damage his “be a winner” is doing to his daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) and isn’t taken seriously by the rest of the family. Grandpa (Alan Arkin) has no qualms about saying whatever foul and abrasive thing that pops into his head. Teenager Dwayne (Paul Dano), a devotee of the writings of Fredrick Nietzsche, has taken a vow of silence until he realizes his dream to become a fighter pilot.  Mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) is just trying to hold everything together. Sheryl’s depressed and suicidal brother Frank (Steve Carell), must live with the family when his insurance will no longer pay for his stay in a mental institution.

The family learns that by an odd twist of fate, Olive is eligible to compete in the national Little Miss Sunshine Pageant.  The squabbling bunch quickly determines that the only way they can get to the pageant in Redondo Beach, California, from their home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is via the family’s yellow Volkswagen bus. And unfortunately for them, everyone has to go.

The film’s humor starts out subtle as we watch Carell’s Frank take stock of his new surroundings. Carell, know mostly for over the top comedic performances, to this point hasn’t done much drama. Here he proves himself an acting powerhouse.

Gradually the humor moves from subtly funny dialogue, to more slapstick comedy as the Hoovers confront the typical problems roadtrippers encounter in such movies. Faced with breaking down on the road, a ridiculous hospital bureaucrat, a horn that won’t stop beeping and other obstacles to getting to California on time, the Hoovers rally. Fortunately their often zany response to potential roadblocks to Olive’s competition are not so over the top to render them completely unbelievable.

Some fairly harsh language and heartbreaking situations are spread across the film. We certainly see this family at its worst. However, such a strong negative portrayal makes their ultimate redemption all the more powerful.

Gradually we see the family unite under the goal of seeing Olive realize her dream of competing in the pageant. Unlike many such movies, we do see the characters grow as they move beyond the bickering and selfishness. Clever and comical “Little Miss Sunshine” gives us the Hoover family’s broken dreams in all their dysfunctional glory. Yet the film doesn’t let us pity them as they learn to find some happiness overcoming some of their flaws.

AUDIENCE:  Older teens and adults

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity:  A good deal of foul language (including taking the Lord’s name in vain) and several vulgar comments from sex-obsessed Grandpa. Family members fight quite a bit in the first half of the movie.
  • Alcohol/Drugs:  Grandpa is shown using drugs.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Frank is homosexual and his “orientation” is discussed several times. Grandpa convinces Frank to buy them both pornography at a gas station. The covers of these magazines are shown. Olive’s “talent” in the pageant is a dance, that while performed in a completely innocent fashion, is obviously based on a striptease.
  • Violence:  The movie begins shortly after Frank attempts suicide and there is some candid discussion about it. Nothing is shown of that attempt but Frank has his wrists bandaged.
  • Religion:  Dwayne wears a shirt that says “Jesus Was Wrong.” He is also a devotee of Fredrick Nietzsche, although the movie never really goes into what Nietzsche believed.