Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

There are really two ways a movie can be good: It can be technically excellent, or it can be enjoyable.

Certain movies are technically excellent--the characters are deep, the dialogue is sharp, the cinematography is stunning, etc--but the movies themselves aren't particularly enjoyable. Citizen Kane and Brokeback Mountain, to pick an old and a new, are two movies that fall into this category.

Other movies may not be so sharp--there are small plot holes, the characters are unrealistic, the direction is lackadaisical--but they still manage to be enjoyable. The Princess Bride and School of Rock are two movies that, for me, fall into this subset.

And upon seeing Little Miss Sunshine, I'm happy to announce its admission to the second camp, though unfortunately I cannot allow it into the first.

I'll get into this, but let me first give you the nuts and bolts of the film. Little Miss Sunshine is essentially a movie about characters, and there are six characters you have to keep track of:

1. Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear), the father of the family. Richard is a well-meaning enough father, but he's obsessed with a 9-steps-to-success program that he created and is now trying to make into a book, and his tendency to view everything through the 9-step lens leads him to make some questionable parenting choices.

2. Sheryl Hoover (Toni Collette), the mother of the family. Sheryl doesn't really have a glaring flaw, unless you count her smoking habit. She, like most stock mother figures, is the voice of reason--concerned only with keeping the family happy and together.

3. Dwayne Hoover (Paul Dano), the teenage son. Dwayne's like a lot of teenagers: he's moody, he's isolated, he's a bit selfish. Unlike most teenagers, however, Dwayne has taken a vow of silence. He's decided not to make a peep until he gets into flight school, and apparently he's already kept this vow for over a year at the time the movie begins.

4. Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin), the seven-year-old daughter. Olive is cute as button and obsessed with beauty pageants. When she gets invited to participate in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, the whole family (after some squabbles) load up into the family's VW bus and trek from Arizona to L.A. for the pageant. This journey is the narrative framework for the film.

5. Grandpa Edwin Hoover (Alan Arkin), the grandfather (duh). Grandpa is a kindly old man who loves his family (especially Olive) very much, but he also snorts cocaine, curses every fifth word, and advises Dwayne to "f*ck a lot of women" while he's young. So he's a bit of a mixed bag.

6. And then there's Frank (Steve Carell), Sheryl's brother and the nation's foremost expert on Marcel Proust. At the start of the movie, Frank is in the hospital, having attempted to commit suicide after his boyfriend/grad student left him to be with America's number-two expert on Proust.

Pack these six divergent personalities into a van for two days--some of them against their will--and you've got the makings of your standard, boilerplate family vacation comedy. If you've seen any of the National Lampoon's Vacation movies starring Chevy Chase--or even last summer's RV with Robin Williams--you have a basic idea of how this works: The dysfunctional family piles into a largish vehicle en route to some supposed Valhalla, buoyed largely by dad's hopeless optimism. The dysfunctional family runs into a number of (usually comical) problems. Dad frets as his kids seem ready to disown him, with his wife considering the option as well. And then, finally, the family overcomes adversity, bonds together, and everyone learns a valuable lesson.

Little Miss Sunshine follows this formula almost to the letter, which one might expect to lead to a tepid family-friendly comedy. But Little Miss Sunshine manages to escape its seemingly preordained mediocrity, and it does so in three ways:

1. The strength of the characters. Just in reading the character descriptions above, you can tell this isn't your typical family vacation movie. A crack addict grandpa? A suicidal gay uncle? A mute teenage son? The adult themes earn it an R rating, but they also lift the characters beyond stereotype. The characters all have their flaws, their strengths, and are real in a way characters in these movies usually aren't. They aren't completely real, mind you, but they're realer than the characters you've come to expect in these films.

2. The strength of the acting. Each of the six principals is excellent, but Steve Carell and Paul Dano get singled out for special praise. Steve Carell is understatedly brilliant, completely capturing morose-but-coping without a shred of overacting. And Paul Dano's raw emotion during the scene where he finally does speak (come on, you knew it had to happen) was enough to bring a tear to the eye of even this hard-hearted movie critic.

3. Olive. Her story is ostensibly the central one, since it is her beauty pageant that gets the whole family into the van in the first place. And Olive is the one character in the movie that you can really get behind one hundred percent, as her childish innocence has not yet been corrupted by the selfishness of her family. And ten-year-old Abigail Breslin (the little girl from Signs) plays seven-year-old Olive perfectly, managing to be entirely sweet and cute without ever becoming sickening.

To be sure, there are problems. A lot of the comically unpleasant situations that the family gets itself into are a bit contrived, as is often the case in such movies. And the final-act redemption happens far too abruptly; they characters are so deplorable at the beginning and so valorous at the end, it's almost as though they're different people.

On the whole, however, Little Miss Sunshine manages to produce more smiles than furrowed brows. How much more? Enough to earn it a 10.

7 comments:

Wicked Little Critta said...

I pretty much completely agree with your evaluation. It rates a little lower for me because of a couple things: the "contrived" situations you described that to me, were a bit disturbing; and the parenting/grandparenting going on which left me appalled. Yeah, it was just a movie, but the young actress was still exposed to a bunch of stuff I'd never want my daughter to see. But then, this might be a conversation for "I Should Be Allowed to Think."

Your Racist Friend said...

You didn't think Citizen Kane was enjoyable? I'm.....flummoxed.

Stormy Pinkness said...

Interestinf review Dr. I like the reality aspects you discussed and I am interested in seeing it.

Dr. Worm said...

Sorry to flummox you, YRF.

With both Citizen Kane and Brokeback Mountain, I'm not saying the movies are NOT enjoyable. I'm just saying the reason they're good ISN'T because they're enjoyable. I liked both of those movies ok, but I liked them more because I recognized that they were well done, rather than because I "enjoyed" them the way I enjoy, say, The Princess Bride. They told important stories in a very compelling way, but that's not the same as being enjoyable. At least to me.

Incidentally, it's entirely possible for a movie to be both very well done and very enjoyable. To pick an old and a new example: Casablanca and Eternal Sunshine.

Your Racist Friend said...

Well yeah, I get that. But I think that my, and a LOT of other people's enjoyment of Citizen Kane comes primarily from the story, and not the innovations that enhanced the film.

Your Racist Friend said...

Whereas I would place Brokeback Mountain in the box marked deeply, deeply flawed.

Anonymous said...

For the record, I'm so with Dr Worm on this one, I would gladly promote him to Professorship.