On Tuesday, September 19th I ventured over to a downtown theatre with a friend to watch the film that festivals are raving about called “Little Miss Sunshine”. We arrived a little late, disappointingly missing the previews but we sat down just as the film began. The theatre was an odd corner shape, moderately full, mostly of middle-aged and older patrons. We picked decent seats near the front but mid-screen level and sat back to see what the interesting cast and plot would give us.
Since I have been known to enjoy a very eclectic and wide variety of movies and genres, so it may sound uneventful when I proclaim that “Little Miss Sunshine” is one of the best films I have seen in a very long time. I truly enjoyed the mixed ensemble cast, the realistic portrayal of their everyday mediocre lives and the way this family behaved together both in and out of trauma and duress.
Greg Kinear is excellent in his role as a father seeking to sell his 9-step motivational ideas on being a winner, yet falling short when his own children and wife need his support whether they win or lose.
Toni Collette is also exceptional as a busy, flustered mother, exasperated by her husbands failing project yet we see her loving nurturing side when she bring home her scholar brother after a botched suicide attempt. She is the many-handed driving force holding this family together as she, juggles her husband, brother, her Neiche-devoted and silent teenaged son, her innocent six-year old daughter who aspires to be the next Miss USA, as well as her socially blunt and crude father-in-law. Collette’s character shines as she helps her daughter pursue her beauty pageant dream without becoming an overbearing and psychotic stage-mother, preening her child into one of the unnervingly fake child beauty contestants. She simply wants her daughter to be herself and follow her dream despite the odds stacked against her.
The youngest cast member of this piece, Abigail Breslin, plays the oddly cute and extremely innocent daughter who, after an inadvertent runner-up win at her cousins beauty pageant, makes it to the regional finals of the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in Los Angeles. He little life is consumed with this new passion and every moment is spent rehearsing with the help of “moves” from her crass but loving grandfather. Breslin is oddly magnetic, attracting the view to her wonderful bright eyes and her young and unbiased perspective on the harsh, critical world around her.
As one of my favourite actors from the television show “The Office” and movies like “Bruce Almighty” and “The 40-Year Old Virgin” Steve Carell creates a new side to his usual annoying, predicable characters. His role as a suicidal scholar who loses his job after a love interest in one of his graduate students goes afoul added a lovely sarcastic echo to the theme of this dysfunctional family. At first Carell’s character feels out of place, the country’s number one Proust scholar, the head of his field, by all rights a “winner”, yet when his personal world collapses around him, taking even his will to live and landing him in his sister’s home sleeping on a cot in his nephew’s room we truly see that his life meshes so perfectly with the winning and losing motif played out in all the family member’s lives.
The most striking character and the one that affected me in a deep emotional way was the role Paul Dano plays of the teenage son and his quest for his hellish teen years to be over so he can finally pursue his dream of becoming a jet pilot. Despite the fact that the son has taken a vow of silence until he reaches that dream, Dano manages to portray such a rich, complex and troubled teen without a word spoken. He frequently and vehemently pulls out a notepad and sharpie to convey quick snippets of conversation to which his family quiets and waits to read. Later on in the film as we see a possible inadvertent wrench thrown into his plans his anger, fear and pain wrap the view so totally in emotions that we cannot help but mourn with him. He is also endearing in unexpected moments as his little sister’s protector and friend. The two siblings seem to communicate without the need for words even though there is a large age-gap between them. Dano is exquisite in this film, from his dark, lanky teen look to the silent refusals to cooperate and subtle facial expressions. His character embodies the loss of innocence more than the beauty pageant experience does for Breslin as daughter. The self-disciplined, driven teen must come to terms with a huge disappointment, and possibly a loss of his dream after a moment of revelation that almost sends him into a downward spiral similar to his uncle’s recent loss. Yet the teen, in a conversation with his uncle played by Carell, must realize that his life’s struggles are the times when he learns the most about himself and his world and despite those struggles he can choose to give up or persevere.
The daughter’s beauty pageant experience ends up being more of a strengthening and bonding moment for the family rather than a time of lost innocence for little Olive. Though a little unsure of her place in the pageant, she simply does not see the critics and fakery that the world judges us with, instead she is wonderfully confident in her quirky personality and brings her family along side her to help realize they are winners in any situation if they simply choose to be winners.

“Little Miss Sunshine” had me laughing, gasping, howling, chuckling, smiling and even shedding a few tears in one place. The film is a delightful look into an strange yet ordinary family on a road trip to take their little daughter to a pageant. Through their moments of failure and their small personal triumphs, we learn a litle more about what it really means to win or lose and how we look at the struggles we go through to get to that finish line.