Director(s): Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Starring: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Greg Kinnear, Abigail Breslin, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin
Picture the scene: it’s Sunday evening, cold enough to have the heating on, and I’m laid on the settee in my pyjamas. I’m exhausted, but not quite ready to make that arduous journey to my bed. It’s in these moments that I crave the quaint peculiarities of the film world. Enter ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ – the quintessential, feel-good indie film.
‘Little Miss Sunshine’ centres on one dysfunctional family as they travel across the United States, in a bright yellow, barely functional, VW campervan. The reason they do this? To fulfil the dream of seven-year-old Olive, (played by a young Abigail Breslin in one of her earliest roles), who dreams of competing in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, after she finds out she is a finalist. Accompanying Olive on her journey are an odd assortment of characters, including her dad, Richard (Greg Kinnear), her voluntarily mute brother, Dwayne (Paul Dano), her drug-addicted grandfather and coach, Edwin (Alan Arkin), a suicidal uncle, Frank (Steve Carell) and trying to keep the family together, her exasperated mother, Sheryl (Toni Collette).
As with many independent films, this truly is a character piece. In a sea of stellar actors, Abigail Breslin is mesmerising, sweet and shines brighter than any of the other, more experienced stars. You simply cannot help but root for her, in spite of the odds being completely against her. Steve Carell also puts in a wonderfully emotive performance as a man who is forced to go on a road trip with his sister’s family, in spite of suffering from crippling depression and only recently having attempted suicide. Paul Dano is a surprising stand out for me too – he doesn’t speak for 70 minutes of the film, yet achieves so much with the role. Finally, no review would be complete without at least mentioning Alan Arkin’s near-perfect performance as the grandpa who can’t be tamed by a nursing home. Such was his timing and delivery, he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. The fact of the matter is, all the performances on show here are note-perfect.
For me, the performances aren’t what make this movie though. It is widely considered a feel-good movie, death notwithstanding, and I can see why. The tone shifts in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments, frequently switching between ridiculous highs and shocking lows. There are so many genuine laugh-out-loud, comedy elements in this film (grandpa’s unsolicited advice to Dwayne, a spontaneous heist, THAT campervan), but also plenty of tragedy. And I’m talking real, relatable, family tragedies. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have ultimately brought to the screen one of the most well-balanced comedy dramas I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. The only thing unbalanced is the overwhelmingly positive score, but even this is used sparingly.
I have very few negatives that I could throw at this film. It makes me laugh and cry, sometimes simultaneously. Whether you watch it once, or over and over again like me, ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ lives up to the name and is truly uplifting. A perfect choice to welcome in the autumn months.