Film brings a little ‘Sunshine’ your way

Reeling it in

Posted: Thursday, January 04, 2007

“Little Miss Sunshine”

20th Century Fox

1 hour, 40 minutes

This time of year is usually either feast or famine at the movies. There are a multitude of worthy films released in a glut, virtually assuring that we, with our limited screening capabilities here on the Kenai Peninsula, will miss more than our share. As we speak, we are currently missing “The Good Shepherd,” “Blood Diamond,” “The Pursuit of Happyness,” and, of all things, “Rocky Balboa.” We’re also missing “Black Christmas,” so I suppose we should count our blessings, but the point is that there is quality entertainment out there that you can’t see without a long drive in a snowstorm. Unless ...

This week, going against type, I decided to review a film on DVD. So, for those of you out there who always tell me, “I don’t go to the movies anymore. I wait and watch them at home,” “Little Miss Sunshine” is one you can run right out and get, without the wait. If you are determined to go to the theater, an activity I like to encourage, “We Are Marshall” is awesome, “Charlotte’s Web” is cute and charming, and “The Holiday” looked sappy so I skipped it.

“Little Miss Sunshine” is a brilliant film, full of both pathos and belly laughs, but one that will, hopefully, stir up some controversy, as well.

Young Olive has a dream. She also has a wildly bizarre family, including a blindly optimistic self-styled self-help guru father, a darkly depressed brother, a drug-snorting lascivious grandfather, a suicidal uncle, and a mother who’s at the end of her rope. But through it all, her dream keeps her centered.

That dream is to be like the beauty queens she sees strutting their stuff on her living room television. When a chance cancellation in the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant occurs, it looks like Olive might get her chance. The only hitch? She’s got two days to go 1,200 miles in a yellow VW bus with her entire aforementioned family in tow. Will wackiness ensue? You tell me.

“Sunshine” works on several different levels. On the one hand, it’s more of a dark dramedy than a wacky comedy.

Steve Carrell is excellent as Uncle Frank, a pre-eminent literary scholar whose clumsy and unsuccessful attempts to woo a male grad student leads to the destruction of his career and reputation, and to his similarly unsuccessful suicide attempt. He shows remarkable range, bringing us a character who, in his internment with Olive’s family, is able to see the bitter humor in a world where he has no place.

Similarly well cast are Alan Arkin as a grandfather who exhibits almost no positive characteristics but still manages to be likable, Greg Kinnear as a father so wrapped up in trying to fulfill his own inadequacies that he nearly becomes the enemy, and Toni Collette as a mother who would do anything for her kids, other than take a real interest in them.

Rounding out the family are Paul Dano as Dwayne, the morose brother who refuses to speak until he gets into flight school, and Olive herself, beautifully played by Abigail Breslin. The acting and writing are top-notch, as is the filming.

I think it’s impossible to have a truly great road movie anywhere but the West, a point “Sunshine” proves. Wide-open landscapes punctuated by the determined little yellow bus are powerful and beautiful images to take away from this film.

The film also works on the level of social criticism, and this is where the controversy should occur. I say “should,” because in our desensitized culture, the point of this film may get lost, and the importance of a particular scene at the end of the film may get missed. I won’t give the scene away. It’s not a surprise ending, but it would ruin the impact to reveal it here.

Suffice it to say, the film, while espousing the importance of family, determination and empathy, also serves as a scathing rebuke to the world of child beauty pageants. What price do we as a society, and parents in particular, pay for the exploitation of our children? This film asks the question in a very pointed way. What you take away from the film largely depends on what you bring to it, but it will make you think and, hopefully, add a little sunshine to your day. Grade: A-

“Little Miss Sunshine” is rated R for language and mature themes involving children.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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