catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 16 :: 2006.09.08 — 2006.09.22


Redemption on the road

Hollywood loves a good dream—especially when that dream is fulfilled in the face of highly inconvenient circumstances, and involves some combination of cute kids, lower-class families, horses, athletics, or forbidden romances. Little Miss Sunshine is a movie full of dreams and dreamers—only, most of the dreams end in dismal failure, and the dreamers are as pathetic and utterly dysfunctional as dreamers get. In other words, it’s probably more Royal Tenenbaums than Friday Night Lights, but it’s a movie so filled with compassion and grace that it just might be the year’s most inspiring film anyway.

Tenenbaums may have reached its climax with a failed suicide, but Sunshine begins with one. Devastating setbacks—both professional and romantic—have landed college professor Frank (Steve Carrell, of The 40-Year-Old Virgin) in the hospital, and now he’s returning home, bandages on his wrists serving as a painful reminder of his faded glory and recent failures. He finds a new home—perhaps even a new start—with his sister Sheryl (Toni Collette) and her husband, self-important motivational speaker Richard (Greg Kinnear), his father (Alan Arkin), and the two kids, Duane (Paul Dano) and cute little Olive (Abigail Breslin).

Frank’s homecoming is celebrated with take-out fried chicken, served on paper plates, and Sprite Zero poured into McDonald’s collectible glasses. It’s pretty shabby, and so is the family. Richard’s self-help program, the Nine Steps, helps its participants to view the entire human race in just the same way that Richard does—neatly divided into winners and losers, with the former category being marked by their lack of compassion or care for anyone outside of themselves. Thing is, the seminars are poorly attended, and the entire family’s financial future rests on a book deal that seems iffy at best. By his own standards, Richard is the loser head of a loser family.

Meanwhile, his father’s only ambition is to enjoy his final years as best he can—which tends to involve vast quantities of heroin, a habit that recently got him booted out of an assisted living community. Duane just wants to get away from his family by joining the Air Force, and has taken a vow of silence until he accomplishes his goal. Poor, long-suffering Sheryl just wants everyone to get along—which of course makes her dream the biggest longshot. And sweet Olive’s goal: to win the regional Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant.

It looks like Olive has the greatest chance of seeing her dream come true, as a message left on the family’s answering machine announces that she has a place in the competition. Pretty soon the whole family has piled into a dingy old VW bus, and they’re on the road from New Mexico to California, escorting the 7-year-old beauty queen to the pageant.

Setbacks, hijinks, and complications—both uproariously funny and heartbreakingly sad—ensue, and it isn’t long before each family member—except for Olive— is faced with the unpleasant reality that he or she lives a life of nothing but selfish ambition. Richard’s winner-loser dichotomy turns out to be a fair representation of the way most folks view the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s right, and pretty soon the Hoovers are each given the choice to either love their neighbors and carry one another’s burdens, or simply go down in flames.The family’s adventures get wackier and wackier as the film progresses, and by the time the bitingly satirical ending rolls around, the whole film is threatening to fly off the rails. It doesn’t; the writing keeps things edgy and unexpected, and the cast keeps it real. It’s the best ensemble cast all year, and each one of them totally nails the performance. What’s more, husband-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris play the whole thing with a very light touch, building the action and raising the stakes with moments of astoundingly masterful characterization. These are the kinds of characters that you feel like you could meet for a cup of coffee. You’d follow them anywhere, even into the craziest of circumstances. They take a good movie and make it great.

It’s a hysterically funny film. It’s also touching, shocking, and full or surprises. And most importantly, it’s redemptive. Loving your neighbor isn’t always easy, and the film doesn’t settle for easy or sentimental answers. So while it’s not family-friendly—the R rating should be taken seriously—it just might be the best family comedy of the year.

This review was originally published at  Please visit the web site for more music and film reviews by Josh Hurst.

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