I had the fortune of seeing Little Miss Sunshine before it opened wide and this movie has stayed with me for months! Written by Michael Arndt and directed by the husband and wife pair of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the movie starts off seeming like it may be a standard road trip flick. But before they even get on the road, it does an excellent job of introducing us to the quirky cast of characters that make up the Hoover family.
Sheryl (Toni Collette) is married to Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear) and you are immediately exposed to the friction between them. Richard, an unsuccessful motivational speaker, tries to get his book published while Sheryl tires of waiting for his ship to come home as she carries the load of providing for the family and holding it all together. Sheryl’s son from her prior marriage, Dwayne (Paul Dano) is rebelling against the family by taking a vow of silence. He quotes Nietzsche on his little notepad as he prepares to achieve his life’s ambition of flying fighter jets. Richard’s father, the drug snorting, over-sexed, quirky grandfather (Alan Arkin) lives with the family and his sole role seems to be training Olive (Abigail Breslin) to dance in her quest to become Little Miss Sunshine. Throw in Sheryl’s suicidal, gay, Number-One-Proust-Scholar-In-The-World brother Frank (played brilliantly by Steve Carell) and you have all the elements to make a really great movie.
Or not. They key to making a movie like this successful is a light touch and here the directors excel. The movie rolls along at the perfect pace. Character flaws are dealt with without apology. The small confines of the road trip VW van (a character in itself) provide the perfect location for lots of stress and lots of humor. As the movie progresses, your feelings for the characters evolve. You think of Grandpa’s drug snorting as funny while in the beginning you feared for little Olive’s safety. You sympathize with Frank’s attempted suicide when you see the beautiful young man who jilted him for the Number Two Proust Scholar In The World. And you even start to feel warm and fuzzy towards the annoying Frank who won’t let Olive believe failure is an option, despite never having succeeded himself.
Directing can be a singularly lonely job. In addition to figuring out the shots and angles, every department (lighting, sound, etc.) needs the director’s input on key decisions. Often the director can’t do much thinking on the set. Co-directing is a great solution. You can brainstorm with your partner, share the stress and burden and the little victories. Working with your spouse, which can be a challenge for many couples, provides the most trust worthy co-director you could pick! Dayton and Faris have had a long and successful career working together, primarily in music videos and advertisements. In the Hollywood world of going after the brightest new shiny object, their first feature will guarantee them several offers.
Credit also goes to the producers for pulling together such a wonderful ensemble cast – something that is very hard to do. In addition to each of them being excellent individually, they combine really well to make even the very few forced, over-the-top, kooky scenes amusing. Greg Kinnear has the same quirky, earnest, but somehow-not-all-together characteristics of his roles from As Good As It Gets and Sabrina. His transition from the always positive to the more realistic and down to earth is endearing. Steve Carell, after his super-hot run in the TV series The Office, plays the dry and cynical Frank to perfection. While Toni Collette and Alan Arkin live up to their reputations, Paul Dano was a pleasant surprise for me — I had never seen his work before and despite being completely silent for 90% of the film, he did an incredible job conveying Dwayne’s teenage angst. And Abigail Breslin? She’s such an adorable tyke – standing next to the super-made up little beauty contestants, she embodied the normal child we all hope to have.
The film is a tale of a family that, by accepting their limitations and recognizing life is not just about success, draws closer together through their misadventures. This brilliant flick premiered at the 2006 Sundance festival and sold for $10 million to Fox Searchlight – the highest price tag ever at Sundance. It was well worth it. The film has already recouped $60 million in the box office. This movie left me feeling happy and hopeful. It is a rare movie that does that any more.