Little Miss Sunshine review by Mike Long

I have to assume that we all know what attracts us to certain movies. However, I find myself to be even more cognizant about what makes me avoid certain films. Whether it be a certain actor (Julia Roberts), or a certain genre (Westerns), or special circumstances (if the movie is the American remake of a French film), I try to steer clear of particular movies. (I know that this may seem close-minded, but I've got a lot of movies to watch!) Sometimes, tastes can change. "Independent comedies" was a genre which I used to enjoy. (For example, Clerks.) But, in recent years, "Independent comedy" has come to mean "a movie which isn't very funny", so I've become quite wary of these movies. So, I had trepidations when approaching Little Miss Sunshine.

Little Miss Sunshine introduces the viewer to a very dysfunctional family. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a self-help guru who is relying on a potential book deal to get his career off of the ground. His put-upon wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette), has enough problems taking care of the family, but she must now be responsible for her brother, Frank (Steve Carell), who has just attempted suicide. Frank is the foremost Proust scholar in the nation. Richard’s father, “Grandpa” (Alan Arkin), is a heroin user who has been kicked out of his retirement home. Sheryl’s son Dwayne (Paul Dano) is a depressed teen who has taken a vow of silence. Finally, we have the boisterous, but awkward Olive (Abigail Breslin). While visiting relative, Olive had the opportunity to participate in a beauty pageant and loved it. Since then, she and Grandpa have been working on pageant routine.

Olive is ecstatic when she learns that she’s been invited to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in California. The family discusses and argues about the situation and finally decides that everyone will make the trip from New Mexico. So, they all pile into a beat-up VW van and hit the road. And, of course, everyone’s issues and true natures emerge on the trip.

Little Miss Sunshine is an interesting film as it straddles many genres. It's essentially a character study...which studies several characters at once. But, it also has elements of drama and comedy. Of those two, the movie leans more towards drama than comedy. And yet, many comments that I've read about the film describe it as a comedy. That's because the ending is quite funny, and the film leaves the viewer with a positive feeling. It's almost like a The Usual Suspects effect, where the ending is so powerful, one tends to forget the rest of the film.

But, I won't soon forget just how sad and depressing most of Little Miss Sunshine is. Hey, for all I know, the ending may not have been funny at all, but the fact that it was simply upbeat may have made it seem hilarious when compared to the rest of the movie. Whatever the case, the movie presents us with a motley crew of very sad and depressed characters and as the film progresses, each of these already tragic people faces a crisis. Some may find this ironic and clever, but after a while, I found it to be overkill as the movie just beating the characters, and us, down. There are some light moments sprinkled throughout, but I didn't perk up until the ending.

The cast save Little Miss Sunshine from being unwatchable. The film certainly works as an ensemble piece, and some of the actors step outside of their normal roles. The normal likable Greg Kinnear plays a jerk, and Steve Carell, who is never overly enthusiastic, is much more subdued than usual. However, Toni Collette, who is, let's remember, Australian, seems to have cornered the market on playing overwhelmed American women, and she repeats that role here. Alan Arkin does a great job as a lovable curmudgeon. And little Abigail Breslin is very good as Olive, the little girl who seemingly has no place in a pageant.

It may read as if I disliked Little Miss Sunshine, and that's not 100% true. It's a challenging film and I found some of the middle section very depressing. But, the ending does save the film and the finale has some truly classic moments. But, be warned, Little Miss Sunshine is yet another entry into the "overly serious independent comedy" genre.

Little Miss Sunshine enters the DVD pageant courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. The DVD contains both the widescreen and full-frame version of the film. For the purposes of this review, only the widescreen version was viewed. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The transfer has its pros and cons. The colors look very good, as Dayton and Faris have placed a mixture of bright and dark tones in the film. The image is sharp, but there is a noticeable amount of grain on the image at times. However, there are no defects from the source material. Artifacting is kept to a minimum, although I did notice haloes around the actors at times. The DVD features a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. For the most part, the audio is housed in the front and center channels. Stereo effects are nicely placed and effective. There are some keys scenes where the surround and bass channels come into play and definitely add to the film.

The Little Miss Sunshine contains a handful of extras. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris provide an AUDIO COMMENTARY for the film. They do a fine job of providing scene-specific commentary and discuss the locations, casting, and the production. They only touch on the development of the script. This pair also participates in a second COMMENTARY which also features screenwriter Michael Arndt. This chat contains some comments which are similar to the first talk, but Arndt brings a new dimension to the talk as he really focuses on the story and the characters. The DVD features 4 ALTERNATE ENDINGS which encompass 5 minutes and can be viewed with or without commentary by Dayton and Faris. These scenes contain some interesting ideas, but three of the four are simply minor variations on the same theme.

6 out of 10 Jackasses

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