"There's two kinds of people in this world, there's winners and there's losers. Okay, you know what the difference is? Winners don't give up."
Little Miss Sunshine is ostensibly a road trip movie concerning the realisation that family is family. It's a wholly daunting task to reinvent the family road trip genre in this contemporary era of cinema, especially if the filmmakers are aiming for realistic as opposed to hyperbolic. Either the production is going to be entirely over-the-top akin to National Lampoon's Vacation, or the filmmakers strive to maintain a sense of reality: portraying the adventure to be tediously dull, reminiscent of an actual road trip. With Little Miss Sunshine, the action and comedy derive commonly from the people involved as opposed to a peculiar state of affairs the screenwriter desired to place them in. The film captures the dull nature of a road trip while also being highly entertaining. Problems are realistic, characters are poignantly pragmatic, atmosphere is enthrallingly convincing and locations are lifelike. This is an enormously unsullied and original idea: one of the most innovative pieces of American cinema for years. The film relies solely on a dexterous script that recognises the dissimilarities between generations in the same family. Each character is idiosyncratic and eccentric yet believable due to the amazing cast.
The film's title is derived from a beauty pageant in California. Young 7-year-old Olive Hoover (Breslin) has aspirations of winning said beauty pageant, and drags her dysfunctional family on a road trip bound for California. Olive's family consists of an interesting bunch of characters: chain-smoking mother Sheryl (Collette), bankrupt lecturer father Richard (Kinnear), suicidal Uncle Frank (Carell), mute-by-choice brother Dwayne (Dano), and quirky Grandpa Edwin (Arkin). To fulfil Olive's dreams, together the family hit the road in their VW bus, heading from Albuquerque to the pageant in Redondo Beach, California. During the trip the whole family are so burdened with their own quirks, neuroses, and problems that they can scarcely make it through a day without disasters befalling them.
One of the greatest facets of Little Miss Sunshine is that the majority of the film feels as though it could happen in the reality we all live in. The family home appears to represent the typical family home with no exaggerations or hyperboles present. Their reactions to the events that transpire continue to be as realistic as they can be even when the situation becomes increasingly cartoonish. However, the film's style is threatened in the last 30 minutes. When the VW bus drives all over the side-walks dodging pedestrians the humour had suddenly changed from subtle, clever black comedy to American slapstick. One of the most commendable things about the scripts is its tendency to avoid conventions and clichés. Even so, this praiseworthy predisposition simply becomes far too over-the-top with the events that occur during the film's final third. It would be an understatement to say that a better ending should have been concocted for Little Miss Sunshine. Its poignant messages about life ring true, that family should always stick together and that life is full of tragedies as opposed to miracles. But the message could have been delivered without being so depressing! What happens to the entire family towards the end is just ghastly. There's no reason for these happenings within the context of the story. There's no reason for it in the reality in which these characters subsist in. Most importantly, it doesn't ring true in any kind of veracity for the audience.
An aspect of the film I must mention is in relation to the beauty pageant. In a time succeeding Jon Benet Ramsey's death, it's sensitive territory to show little girls parading around like high class hookers with skimpy clothes. It feels wrong. Even though it's meant to be funny in its depiction of the extremes parents will force their children to endure, it's impossible to find any humour due to the scary thought that children have been murdered for doing this stuff. Of course, the film had to show some of the girls doing this to get the impression of the overwhelming competition Olive is up against, but perhaps there's just too much time dedicated to showing this. I felt uncomfortable watching this stuff for such a prolonged period of time.
The characters are perfectly executed by a perfect cast. These characters, the six we spend the entire film with, aren't the perfect, beautiful people commonly found in most "feel-good" American films. They have problems and imperfections, they are unhappy in life and, despite all that, try to do the best they can for as many people as possible. It is in the little moments where the most realistic moments come to life. Abigail Breslin cannot be faulted for her radiant performance. She's still extremely young, but has one heck of a career ahead of her. Greg Kinnear perfectly represents the typical father figure. Moments of poignancy also shine in Toni Collette's performance as the mother of the family. Both Kinnear and Collette feel true to life. Steve Carell is a real stand-out in the cast. Carell is also poignant as an uncle figure. Never is his concentration broken. This performance proves that Carell doesn't need to rely on overacting to be funny. This is one of his funniest performances just because of the subtle wit and dark humour. Alan Arkin is in a career best performance as the quirky grandpa. Paul Dano is also fantastic as Olive's brother. It's interesting to note that all characters experience a revelation (with the exception of Arkin's character). Most notable is Olive. Although the end of the film finds the world of everyone else completely crushed, Olive is just as happy to do what she's been doing, and she doesn't give a damn about what everyone else thinks.
Overall, Little Miss Sunshine is a good film...not a great film. The film is entertaining and I will watch it again for sure, but the hype was over-the-top and the Best Picture nomination wasn't deserved in lieu of the other great films released during 2006. There's an ideal cast, a terrifically suitable slate of music and an original reinvention of the family road trip genre; however the final 30 minutes are too depressing for the film's established context. It's a shame that another, dissimilar ending couldn't have been devised for Little Miss Sunshine. For the majority of the film, it is one of the best and most poignant films of all time. However, in the final 30 minutes the wheels completely fall off. So, does the ending destroy what has come before it? It'd be great to say no, but the fact of the matter is it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. All the fantastic performances we've witnessed on the screen and all the laughs we had at the expense of the characters are incapable to salvage a conclusion to which there is no acceptable explanation for.