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Published September 8th, 2006 | by Jay Richardson

Little Miss Sunshine Review

Classification: 15 Director: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris Rating: 4/5

A big crowd-pleaser at the Sundance Film Festival, Little Miss Sunshine is a comedy-drama about a dysfunctional family, an endearing tale that successfully finds the centre ground between the two genres glossed over by most mainstream movies.

A sharply cut opening sequence introduces the Hoovers. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker stubbornly committed to his “refuse to lose” philosophy, despite his career’s refusal to take off. His frustrated wife Sheryl (Toni Collete) struggles to keep the family together, while teenage son and Nietzsche devotee Dwayne (Paul Dano) is maintaining a vow of silence until he becomes a fighter pilot. Richard’s father, Grandpa (Alan Arkin), is a horny old heroin user with a propensity for swearing, while Sheryl’s suicidal brother Frank (Steve Carrell) is the newest addition to the household, a gay Proust scholar who just lost the object of his affections and a ‘genius grant’ to a rival academic.

Completing the clan and its sole source of optimism is Olive (Abigail Breslin), a cheery, bespectacled seven-year-old with a passion for beauty contests. Coached by her Grandpa, fate delivers Olive the chance to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine competition. The entire family reluctantly piles into a broken-down Volkswagen camper and leave their Albuquerque home for the contest in Redondo Beach, California. An extended series of in-fights, setbacks and disasters, the trip nevertheless bonds them together through adversity, writer Michael Arndt’s script coaxing engagingly warm performances from this eccentric group.

There are some beautifully observed comic moments, including the old man’s words of wisdom to his silent grandson and advice on getting a van started with a broken clutch, though the finale at the pageant tips into a comedy of horror, condemning this disturbing spectacle with just the right balance of satire and pathos. It’s not without flaws, as the film criminally underuses Collette and relies on a couple of obvious contrivances, such as the notion that Richard and Sheryl have never seen their daughter’s routine before. Yet for all Collette and Kinnear are reliably solid, Arkin excels with some choice barking. Dano does much with a role that robs him of dialogue. Ironically playing it straight, Steve Carell continues to show why he’s one of the most sought after talents in movie comedy. And Breslin is a delight. Never so cute as to irritate, with a sharp awareness of the role’s requirements, she displays a talent that’s simply beyond most performers her age.

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