LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE is this year’s Sundance breakout and nearly all the press its received thus far has lauded it as, well, a little ray of sunshine to carry audiences through the last month of summer. It is the independent underdog that will tickle your funny bone, stimulate your mind and warm your heart. This little movie has so much to live up to and it has barely even gone wide at the moment I am writing this. LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE isn’t generating its own buzz; it’s having its buzz generated by the machine that wants so badly for it to be that movie it could. Y’know which one I’m talking about. The smaller, simpler movie that allows a more mature audience to wind down their summer, to let the ringing in their ears from all the explosive blockbusters subside. What the machine doesn’t understand is that the movie that fills that particular void is not manufactured. It is genuine and it earns that honour all by itself.
This honour is not one I feel LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE would have earned if it weren’t manufactured for it. Albeit an endearing film with authentic moments of hilarity and sentiment, it is often disconnected and unresolved. The dual director team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris create a believable family unit by giving each member their own personal touch. Dad is a failed motivational speaker; Mom has to deal with loser dad; Grandpa has a heroine problem; older brother has taken a vow of silence until he becomes a fighter pilot; and gay uncle Frank is fresh out of the hospital after trying to kill himself. Dealing themselves such a diverse hand of characters leaves many opportunities to cross the line between quirky and just plain awkward, which they do more often then they should. Then of course there’s Little Miss Sunshine wannabe herself, Olive. With an earnest enthusiasm and innocence beaming from her face (like a ray of … sorry), untouched and uncorrupted Olive reminds the family that they are in fact a family. It’s a lovely story but it is one that only takes shape in the final moments of the film. Prior to that, each character’s individual problems guide all of their own motivations and they only barely have any depth past these problems. Shifting each characters’ focus outwards gives the film some much needed structure but it leaves many an issue either unresolved or resolved far too quickly.
The ensemble cast of LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE reigns as the true heart of this organism. Cramped together in their yellow mini-bus, many different personalities fester. Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette are the heads of the family. Collette is merely a device to highlight the failures of her husband through her aggravation with him. Kinnear’s role however is hefty and he stridently carries that weight as an emasculated patriarch who preaches his failed life lessons to his daughter because she is the only one still buying them. Like another successful family piece, Noah Baumbach’s THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, the influence of the parents on the children manifests before your eyes in a difficult and painful fashion. Steve Carrell plays suicidal uncle, Frank, like a seemingly dormant volcano that may or may not erupt. You just can’t tell. His mystery is heartening and shows promise for his developing capabilities.
As a critic, shedding expectations is a higher state of being I try to achieve before I watch anything. I don’t read other reviews before I see the movie or even before I sit down to write my own, all as an effort to keep it real (dawg). It only takes a quick glance at a magazine cover to get whether people are hating, liking or really loving a movie so it is hard to avoid entirely. But as much as I try to approach each film with a fresh piece of paper to write on, buzz manages to influence the way we see things. When I’m told that something is really solid and it isn’t, even just a little, my disappointment is magnified. LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE has so many things going for it that what it is lacking makes it all the more frustrating because you really want it to live up to the hype. Still …