by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was Little Miss Sunshine, released in 2006 (though it actually took five years to make, mostly for financial reasons) after Fox Searchlight picked it up at the Sundance Film Festival — and I strongly suspect it was inspired by the JonBenét Ramsey murder in 1996 and the ghastly footage of the children’s beauty contests her parents put her through before she died. Many of us — quite possibly including Little Miss Sunshine’s writer, Michael Arndt, and directors, husband-and-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris — had never heard of children’s beauty pageants before this, and the sight of these doll-like little girls made up to the nines and dressed up in outfits midway between Disney princess and street-hooker slut was so disgusting to many (including me) it was probably only a matter of time before some filmmakers with enough chutzpah went into that world and skewered it.
Actually, Little Miss Sunshine skewers a lot more than that; it’s a movie whose daggers are aimed right at the heart of the whole concept of “family.” Its creators seemed to be aiming to create the Mother of All Dysfunctional Movie Families, and they pretty much succeeded: dad Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear, who took the part after Bill Murray and Robin Williams turned it down and was better than either of those actors would have been) is attempting to sell a nine-step “Winners’” self-improvement course and struts around the house spouting the nostrums of his course to a captive audience. Mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) pretty much suffers in silence when she’s not pleading with dad to loosen up the purse strings (he’s saving all the family’s money to launch his course) and let their daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin), who’s just been unexpectedly elevated to winner of the regional Little Miss Sunshine contest in their home town of Albuquerque, New Mexico after the original winner was disqualified (“something about diet pills” is the throwaway line that’s tossed out by way of explanation), compete in the national finals in Redondo Beach, California.
The Hoovers have another child, 15-year-old son Dwayne (Paul Dano, whose mask-like face and rather remote demeanor clearly marked him for the bigger and better parts he’s got since — he’s also quite hot-looking, and I say that as a man who ordinarily doesn’t like ’em that young!), who’s applied to the Air Force Academy to be a pilot and has decided as a sign of his dedication not to speak until he’s accepted — though he occasionally writes down short messages in a notepad, like Beethoven. Also in this unlikely household is Richard’s father Edwin (Alan Arkin), a profane old man whose preoccupations are snorting heroin (he figures since he doesn’t have long to live anyway he might as well do drugs and have some fun) and sex — both his own and other people’s, particularly Dwayne’s — his speech to Dwayne that at 15 he really should be getting some with his age peers before he turns 18 and it becomes statutory rape is one of the highlights of a film with a lot of them.
At the start of the movie the family suddenly has to deal with Sheryl’s brother, Frank Ginsburg (Steve Carell), a Gay man and nationally recognized Proust scholar until his principal rival in the field of Proust studies successively seduced away his boyfriend, his MacArthur Fellowship grant and the distinction of getting his book on Proust published and becoming a surprise best-seller. (After the example of real-life Gay writer Edmund White and his book on Proust, I began to wonder if, since Proust himself was Gay, you have to be a Gay man to write about him.) The traumas pushed Frank into a suicide attempt, for which he was hospitalized for two days and then released with solemn instructions to the Hoovers never to let him alone, let him around sharp objects (he had slit his wrists) or drugs, and to have someone sleep in the same room — and the job of his taskmaster falls upon Dwayne.
These grimly dysfunctional people suddenly have two days to drive their old VW van across about a third of America from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, and on their way they blow the van’s clutch (Sheryl has never driven a stick-shift before, but she gamely tries, with disastrous results) — the car will still work but it has to be push-started, which gives them a powerful disincentive against stopping for any reason whatever. They stop at a convenience store where Frank is asked to buy grandpa Edwin some porn — he gets two straight magazines for him and a Gay one, Buns and Ammo (well, it’s not much stupider a title than some of the real ones!), for himself — and later on a cop (Dean Norris) who pulls them over shows himself distinctly interested in the straight porn and even more interested in the Gay porn (“Why didn’t you put this one on top?” he asks), so he lets them go.
On the way grandpa Edwin — who’s been regaling everyone with such scatological reflections that the only way he’s allowed to get away with it with a child in the car is she’s got her headphones on and is listening to a portable CD player (and the film’s directors made sure Abigail Breslin’s player really was plugged in and playing music so she wouldn’t hear Alan Arkin’s dirty dialogue!) — suddenly dies in the family’s hotel room. He ends up in a hospital where he’s pronounced dead and the family is told by the hospital’s officious “grief counselor” that they’re going to have to stay behind at least three days to process the paperwork attendant on his, or anyone’s death — to which they respond by hauling his body out of the hospital and smuggling it back into their van: to hell with the bureaucracy, we can bury him later, Olive has a contest to enter!
The film continues on in that demented vein for an hour and 10 minutes until the Hoovers finally arrive at the contest site … five minutes late, and an officious pageant official, a woman with big black hair, refuses to let them enter while the guy at the desk says they can add them, then in an aside to the Hoovers says, “These people are crazy. I’m not working here next year.” The other 11 contestants have Our Olive out-glamoured, out-costumed and out-sexied big-time, but Olive does a routine her granddad taught her, dressing in a top hat, men’s jacket and tie and doing a Dietrich-esque strip-tease to, of all songs, Rick James’ “Super Freak.” The big-haired woman is scandalized and orders Richard to get his daughter off the stage, now, but he refuses (good for him!) and instead the Hoovers get up and dance with her, and they score a weirdly demented triumph that at least kind of makes up for all the bad stuff that happened to them on the way there — including Dwayne finding out that he’s colorblind and therefore won’t be able to get into the Air Force’s pilot training program, and his response that he has nothing to live for and his parents should just leave him in the desert to die. When he finally does speak, it’s typical of this movie that his first audible word is “F-U-C-K!,” drawn out into a long, almost incomprehensible wail the way Jim Morrison did at the climactic moment of the Doors’ song “The End.”
Like Stranger than Fiction and Kabluey, Little Miss Sunshine is a welcome reminder that the age of movie comedy is not entirely dead, and though Little Miss Sunshine uses the raunchiness and foul language that has dragged down most film comedies of late, it at least uses them in a genuinely funny way. It’s also the sort of film that drags in some pretty clichéd situations, but also communicates to the audience a self-referential knowledge that the filmmakers know they’re using clichés and appealing to the collective unconscious of film fandom with them is an effect they’re actually achieving on purpose. Little Miss Sunshine is a quite remarkable film and it’s understandable why it’s achieved a cult following and is apparently currently being adapted into a stage musical — not that that’s necessarily a good thing, since much of the film’s appeal comes from the clash between the wide-open road the family is traveling on and the closed-in space of the van in which they’re having their bizarre conflicts, and that’s going to be a hard effect to reproduce on stage.