Little Miss Sunshine
The Hoover family in Little Miss Sunshine is so miserable that it’s comical. We first meet the dad Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear) wrapping up a motivational speaking engagement. With great enthusiasm, he booms out his nine crucial steps in How To Be A Winner. Then the camera pulls back to reveal a grungy community-college classroom. Some of the six or so slouching audience members give him a smattering of polite applause.
Meanwhile Sheryl (Toni Collette) goes to hospital to take charge of her brother Frank (Steve Carell) a literature professor who has tried to kill himself. She tearfully takes him home where he has to bunk with Dwayne (Paul Dano) the teenage son who has a fixation on Friedrich Nietzsche and who has taken a vow of silence until he can get into the Air Force Academy.
The Hoover family gathers for dinner that night in their Albuquerque home. We meet the last two family members: daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) and Grandpa, Richard’s father (Alan Arkin).
Olive is an appealing seven year-old: high-energy and obsessed with beauty pageants. Grandpa is a gruff ex-hippie who has been a resentful resident of the Hoover household since getting kicked out of his retirement community for heroin use.
At the dinner table, Grandpa sneers at Frank’s back-story: attempted suicide due to unrequited love of a male graduate student who spurned Frank for a rival professor. As Olive draws forth this information with innocent questions, her parents squirm in their chairs. Richard tries to change the subject to harmless topics, frantic to protect Olive from life’s realities. Sheryl, who can no longer stand her husband’s misleading optimism, insists on the truth. Frank gingerly tries to explain his messy life with false cheerfulness. Teenage Dwayne glowers in silence, looking about to implode.
Then the family learns, right there at their dinner, that Olive has been accepted into the finals of the Little Miss Sunshine child beauty pageant! The family has only three days to get her from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Redondo Beach, California so that she can compete. So they all pile into their ancient VW bus to make the trip. Soon they are all sniping at each other. Plus the bus blows its clutch. Every time they want to resume their journey, the family has to push the bus until it picks up enough speed to drop into second gear; then they can jump on. Richard the driver can never slow down or stop!
This is a character-driven movie: each talented actor amplifies the key emotion of his or her character. Richard is a creature of fear: frantically phoning his agent who is supposed to be marketing his nine-step program. He tries to bully his family into recognizing he’s a winner. However, Sheryl, the breadwinner of the family, can emasculate him with a single, hissed, “Richard!” to cut off his panicked stream of rah-rah platitudes. Her emotion is the rage of a woman at the end of her rope, trying to cope with her family’s lunacy while nailing down the practical details of keeping them fed and out of trouble.
Olive shines with enthusiasm and energy. Teenaged Dwayne communicates with terse notes and seething glances his disgust with his family. Frank radiates the baffled wonderment of someone who has decided he has nothing left to lose. He is played with beautiful restraint and irony. Whenever the family has to push the bus to a running start, he reminds Dwayne in a self-mocking tone that he is the preeminent Proust scholar in the United States.
The old reprobate Grandpa feels impatience -- with everything. He peppers squeamish Dwayne with inappropriate sex advice that he wishes he had taken when young. He is also the only family member to put aside his troubles and make time for Olive, helping her pick out music and a dance routine for the talent-show part of her contest. Of course, knowing nothing about child beauty pageants, he has only his own checkered past to draw upon for inspiration. The other Hoovers, who have been too self-absorbed to catch one of Olive’s endless rehearsals, get a big surprise when they finally witness her performance.
The pageant, and Olive’s routine in particularly, get a big build-up as the movie progresses -- and they don’t disappoint! The Little Miss Sunshine contest is a surreal experience with glamorous seven year-old girls strutting their stuff. A ruthless “steel magnolia” type of southern-belle/dictator (Beth Grant) runs the show. Olive’s dance number I will leave to your direct experience. If you remember the Eighties at all, and recognize the opening notes of her music, you’re likely to bust out laughing at the inappropriateness of it all.
Little Miss Sunshine sounds dysfunctional, but contains a lot of humor -- black and otherwise. The cast looked to be having a great time, and you will, too. Little Miss Sunshine is available on Amazon through this link: