Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Starring: Abigail Breslin, Greg Kinnear, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin, Toni Collette, Steve Carell
Directed by: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
This summer movie season has been a collection of disappointments for me. The big blockbusters were either dull (Superman Returns, Cars), middling (The Da Vinci Code), or insultingly bad (X-Men: The Last Stand). The smaller, indie films were also disappointing (Clerks II, which was at least entertaining), interesting but lacking (A Scanner Darkly), or boring (A Prairie Home Companion). The documentaries have been good, but... the summer isn't supposed to be about documentaries.
So why do I keep coming back? Well, despite all the negative reviews I've given, I really do enjoy movies. Even more, I enjoy discovery movies, the ones that might not get as much attention that you can take to your heart closer and easier than the big budget, ultra-hyped movies. That's why I see movies like A Prairie Home Companion, or Junebug, even if I end up not liking them at all. Despite a string of bad luck, I held out hope that there was a great movie out there, and it was just a matter of time before I was rewarded. Sure, I got discouraged. But that only made the reward that much sweeter.
Because I would sit through a marathon of A Prairie Home Companion, Cars, and even X-Men: The Last Stand to see movies as good as Little Miss Sunshine. It is easily the best movie you'll see all summer, and indeed, the best movie 2006 has thus far offered. In fact, it'll take a hell of a movie to keep it from holding that title come December, because this is a special movie.
Primarily a comedy, Little Miss Sunshine fulfills the primary role of a comedy in that it is gut-bustingly funny. The laughter will rise from the depths of your belly, humour that comes effortlessly for the cast and the script. There's no self-conscious winking, no forced situations, no hammy theatrics. The script is quite deft in the way it introduces characters in situations that are as natural as they are hilariously ridiculous.
However, this is no typical summer comedy. Despite the presence of Steve Carell, this is no 40-Year-Old Virgin. Carell breaks your heart in his very first scene, which sets the tone for a controlled, bittersweet performance that is as touching as it is funny. He was really a revelation in this movie, with a character that is as different from his naively sweet Andy Stitzer as Stitzer is from his motor-mouthed news anchor characters from Anchorman and Bruce Almighty, or the clueless oaf Michael Scott from The Office. Which shows what a gifted comedic performer Carrell is, that he doesn't rely on any nervous tics or trademark gags in this film at all, and turns in his best performance to date.
When the movie first began, I was a little worried by the initial framing. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris introduce us to cast with Wes Anderson-style shots, with the characters a bit off-frame, isolated from the rest of the shot. I worried that it would be the kind of movie that presents its characters as isolated and distant, but instead it used those shots to show their isolation, then proceeded to flesh them out, allowing the audience to embrace them. And you will. You'll embrace them all, from Abigail Breslin's infectiously enthusiastic Olive, Alan Arkin's crude Grandpa, Toni Collette's warm and frazzled Sheryl, Paul Dano's Lloyd Dobler-like Dwayne, Carell's depressed and bemused Frank, and even eventually Greg Kinnear's narcissistic Richard. These are three-dimensional, rounded characters that feel whole and fresh, not a mere collection of quirks and defects that too many indie films try to pass of as characters.
As funny as this movie is, it'll also tear your heart out as easily as it makes you smile. It is a bittersweet movie about broken people that got me as close to tears as any movie I can remember in quite awhile. Along with Carell's open misery, there are touching moments with Breslin, Dano, and Collette that pull at the heart-strings, capped off with a brilliant and cathartic finale. In the end, you'll be surprised that a movie filled with world-weary, cynical characters will end up being one of the best celebrations of the human spirit to have come along in years.
I loved this movie. It was an amazing ride, a road movie/character study/black comedy/family drama of the highest order, that I will now champion to anyone who will listen. The best 100 minutes I've spent in a theatre in a long time, and the best argument I can think of for still seeing movies, despite all the crap the movie industry keeps sending us.
40-Year-Old Virgin, The (2005)
About a Boy (2002)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)