Starring: Toni Collette, Greg Kinnear and Steve Carell
Director: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
ON paper, Little Miss Sunshine seems unexceptional, a road movie with a dysfunctional family driving from New Mexico to California so that the young daughter can participate in the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant.
This is one of those American institutions where six and seven-year-old girls are dressed and made up to look like provocative sex symbols and have to parade, sing and dance as if their life depended on it.
Well, this synopsis (which does not contain half of what happens) may not appeal. But, with the smart writing, the very good performances and a satiric tone, Little Miss Sunshine turns out to be an intelligent, sometimes incisive, portrait of odd America which ends in a surprisingly positive way.
Pre-credits quickly introduce and establish the six characters who seem to be in search of some kind of identity.
Richard (Greg Kinnear) has a nine-step system for success which he hopes will be published, otherwise they are bankrupt.
His wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) is divorced with a teenage son and has married Richard and they have a daughter. She is, by and large, the sensible one and the family anchor. However, her brother Frank (Steve Carell) has attempted suicide because a student he has fallen in love with has rejected him and gone off with a rival professor, expert on Proust.
Dwayne (Paul Dano) is the son who wants to be a jet pilot but has read Nietszche and has taken a vow of silence.
Olive (Abigail Breslin) is a bespectacled, curious young girl besotted with pageants.
And Grandpa (Alan Arkin) lives with the family, snorts drugs and expresses a permissive philosophy of life to all and sundry.
That’s just the beginning.
Actually, we get to know the characters quite well and learn to have some sympathy for them. Their journey has its hilarious moments.
The pageant is all that we expect it to be – except for everyone realising that Olive does not need to do this, except for the surprise at the dance moves that Grandpa taught her, and the grand finale on stage.
The screenplay is very critical of the characters but offers them the possibility of waking up to themselves and the possibility of a better life.