Welcome again to dysfunction junction, the favorite stop for the indie movie express. This summer's Sundance sweetheart, Little Miss Sunshine, features a collection of endearing freaks and a sound track of hipster favorites; though the formula has become a cliché, it's still a great antidote to the summer blockbuster schlock. What better alternative to the explosive- and expletive-laden Miami Vice than a little movie with a clever script and the sweet-and-sour disposition of Garden State?
Sunshine features a motley crew of lovable losers who embark on what seems to be a family road trip destined to rival anything National Lampoon's Griswold family has endured. Packed into a junky mustard-yellow VW bus, a family of misfits races to get their youngest member to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant and you just know there's no wee tiara in her future. For one thing, these are not pageant people. Little Olive (Abigail Breslin) is escorted by her heartbroken gay uncle (Steve Carell), who recently failed at suicide; Grandpa (Alan Arkin) has a newfound penchant for illegal drugs, which got him kicked out of the old folks' home; her mute-by-choice teen brother (Paul Dano) hates everyone and worships Nietzsche; and Mom (Toni Collette) is on the brink of divorcing Dad (Greg Kinnear), who's a winning-obsessed loser.
The cast is fabulous, particularly Carell and Kinnear. In what might be his best performance yet, Kinnear creates Richard, a character who is unapologetically an ass, but whom we find ourselves rooting for anyway. He runs poorly attended seminars pushing his codified rules for becoming a winner, even though, ironically, he's never found success himself. The rules become his answers for everything, and strain his family financially (he's got no real job) and emotionally. Still, there's something so undeniably likable about Kinnear that it keeps you from completely despising him.
Richard's family doesn't fare much better as winners. As much as we quickly grow to love Olive, her fate is sealed. Up against tiara-hungry parents who smear pounds of mascara on their 5-year-olds and train their toddlers to do professionally choreographed song-and-dance routines in sequined get-ups, she's way out of her league.
The obvious lesson here is that winning isn't everything: Sometimes the journey is enough. This lesson gives Little Miss Sunshine a saccharine undertaste, much like the syrupy romantic plot did to Garden State. Family bonding will happen. No matter the outcome of the pageant, the family will wind up closer than ever.
And in the wake of Napoleon Dynamite, directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton work a bit too hard to one-up every other dysfunctional family drama-comedy out there. Why dress Olive in 1984 "Let's Get Physical" sweatbands and pack the family in a crappy VW bus? Why go for extreme eccentricities when this ragtag group's oddities are odd enough?
Sentimental low points and contrived idiosyncrasies aside, Little Miss Sunshine still boasts wonderful performances, a cheeky sense of humor and an original story. And that's enough to brighten up any summer day.
Showing at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456) and the Michigan Theater (603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8463).
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].