Little Miss Sunshine
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Starring Toni Collette, Abigail Breslin, Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin, and Steve Carrell
Rated R

Something early on in the not-really-a-parody parody of depressing middle-class American life that is Little Miss Sunshine led me to an Epiphany about movies. At least, it felt like an Epiphany at the time, though now, in retrospect, looking at the words describing the Epiphany, it seems pretty obvious and even trite. But it’s this:

Movies either challenge the status quo, or they reinforce it.

Not exactly earth-shattering — they’d have to do one or the other, wouldn’t they? — and I realized that almost immediately, but I began to expand the Epiphany into a Theory anyway: Big-budget mainstream studio films tend to reinforce, smaller independent films tend to challenge, except when they don’t. It made me feel real clever, picking out the flick’s indie ironies, little nuggets of status-quo-challenging smacks upside society’s head. Like suburban mom Sheryl’s (Toni Collette) insistence that her family supplement their takeaway fast-food chicken dinner with at least a little 95-percent-water iceberg-lettuce salad — she doesn’t use exactly those words, of course, and probably doesn’t realize the pointlessness of her insistence, but she loves her family and wants them to eat their (not-veggie) veggies, and that’s what counts, right? Like the urgent entrepreneurialism of dad Richard (Greg Kinnear), pushing his success-now! whatever-step plan on his kids without seeing how it’s pushing them away, especially massively miserable teenaged Dwayne (Paul Dano). I felt all smart and intellectual. I felt like Sheryl’s brother, Frank (Steve Carell), the “most highly regarded Proust scholar in the United States,” who’s just come to stay with her family, except for Frank’s suicidal depression — I’m not that bad off, not quite yet.

So what do you do with Little Miss Sunshine, as a person like me for whom disdaining the status quo is my status quo? How do you wrap your head around the fact that Little Miss Sunshine really is just the indie challenging-the-status-quo status quo? Is anyone who is inclined to check out Little Miss Sunshine going to be the kind of person who won’t roll their eyes at the idea that a fast food dinner may be nutritionally redeemed by the application of iceberg lettuce? Of course not.

So what you do is this: You embrace this film wholeheartedly anyway, because after it gets the initial smacks of satire out of the way, it becomes genuinely heartfelt, full of raw emotional power in a way that isn’t about satire — though there’s plenty of that still to come — but about the things we do for the people we love even though the people we love drive us batshit. This is my absolute favorite movie of the year so far, and not because, in the end, it holds up for well-deserved ridicule the obscenity of “beauty pageants” for little girls, though it does do that, in a brilliant and laugh-out-loud way that I should have seen coming but didn’t. It is my favorite movie of the year for all the little touches along the literal and figurative road it takes to get there.

The bulk of the movie, see, consists of the roadtrip from hell the family goes on in order to get young Olive (Abigail Breslin) to the Little Miss Sunshine competition, to which she has been invited at the last minute. This is her dream come true, and none of them can bear to break her heart. So all these characters who are in constant battle with one another over absolutely everything are tossed into a VW van for a drive of hundreds and hundreds of miles and have to not kill one another in spite of the many disasters they encounter. Too many disasters to be believed? Maybe. But any absurdity — not that there’s anything wrong with absurdity — is more than trumped by that raw emotional power. Like the tiny but poignant scene in which Kinnear makes a phone call and gets the worst news he can imagine — we don’t hear the other end of that call, we just see his face fall: Kinnear makes you feel like you can almost hear his heart sink. Like the hilarious and heartrending bit in which Dano’s Dwayne, who has taken a vow of silence, must wordlessly convey his desperate need for his father to pull the van off the road (and it’s not for the reason you’re thinking).

Hilarious and heartrending is a pretty good phrase in which to wrap up Little Miss Sunshine, in fact. Think too much about it, and you’ll realize that in its outline, it’s not exactly full of nothing we haven’t seen before (in fact, it’s kinda an indie-flavored spin on National Lampoon’s Vacation!). But let yourself feel it, and you’ll be under its spell for good.

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