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Little Miss Sunshine

Review Written by: Joe Earp
Film: A+
What the MPAA Rating should be: PG-13 (for language, brief nudity and drug content)

Directed by: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Written by: Michael Arndt
Produced by: Albert Berger, David Friendly, Peter Saraf, Mark Turtletaub and Ron Yerxa
Starring: Abigail Breslin, Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, Steve Carell
Studio: Fox Searchlight

A suicidal gay Proust scholar, a heroin snorting Grandpa and a motivational speaker whose life has hit the skids are hardly the kind of characters you'd expect to find in a comedy. What kind of film tries to make its audience laugh while still dealing with drug abuse, suicide and the pains of being a teenager? In short: a film like no other. Little Miss Sunshine is one of those movies that you step out of beaming. I'm not usually a fan of comedy and happy, trite endings annoy me. Walking out of a cinema smiling is not something that I am for in a trip to the movies. Instead as an audience member I prefer to be provoked, to be shocked into thought. That said, Little Miss Sunshine is one of the most subtle, brilliant films I've seen all year and is easily one of the greatest comedies I've seen in a long time.

For a start, the film's screenplay is spot on. Although the story is very familiar (a dysfunctional family takes a road trip to fulfil the dreams of a young child) it nevertheless stands out from other B-grade comedies. To begin with, the film fully embraces the dark nature of the character's lives. Instead of some of the fluffier, more conventional films out there that refuse to accept that their characters aren't perfect, Little Miss Sunshine immediately sets the scene for us, depicting the characters at their most selfish, flawed and unappealing not less than twenty minutes into the film. This is a movie that is not afraid to accept the darkness inherent in its storyline and that's what makes it so amazing. The family we see here is truly dysfunctional. They are real characters, not Brady Bunch style cardboard cut-outs who feel unreal and distant. The film is much more personal and ultimately quite beautiful because of this. It is the fact that we have seen the depths that some of these characters can sink to, that makes the ending all the more triumphant.

The humour in the film is spot on and best of all it comes directly from the characters. As a result Little Miss Sunshine feels as real as they come. Unlike other poorly crafted screenplays that can only be funny or that can only be serious, the film covers both, sometimes simultaneously. In one exceptional scene, Olive the young girl who is the catalyst for the whole trip, wakes her parents up warily. For a moment the audience expects the young girl to exclaim that the family is late or that there is some other minor problem. Instead the tone shifts considerably, trumping our expectations in a single, shocking line of dialogue.

Best of all, every single character in the film is a delight. The acting is truly amazing with Steve Carrell giving a heartrending turn as the tragic, gay Proust scholar. This is not the Carrell of films like The 40 Year Old Virgin. In this, his darkest role, the perfectly competent actor proves that he too can play with the big boys now. The real tragedy of Carrell's character is portrayed perfectly in his craggy, beared face and his relationship with the moody, Nietzche obsessed Dwayne (Paul Dano in a similarly powerful performance) is poignant and affecting. But the real treat here, surprisingly enough, is newcomer Abigail Breslin. With subtle, intelligent sleights of hand, worthy of actresses years older than the talented young performer, Breslin exposes the flaws and dreams of her character. Alan Arkin as the grizzly old grandfather turns in a similarly dark performance, that is completely bare and uncompromised. Arkin explores every nook and cranny of his character, not at all afraid when things turn dark. Best of all, every single character in the film has been thought out wonderfully from their dialogue to even what they wear. For example, Frank (Carrell) dresses entirely in white after his suicide attempt, implying a kind of rebirth. This is the character at his most vulnerable; right as he is turning over a new leaf.

The score by Michael Danna and Devotchka is suitably weird and touching, adding another layer to one of the most humane films of the past decade. Throughout the whole film I had my fingers crossed, desperately hoping that the movie would find a way to resolve itself without being too audience friendly or cheery. Luckily enough Little Miss Sunshine has a brilliant finale that is both humorous, touching and intelligent. Miraculously in its last twenty minutes, the film almost becomes a kind of social commentary, a clever insight that cuts straight to the heart of what drives beauty pageants across the world. Nevertheless it keeps its characters in sight, making sure not to destroy the dreams of young Olive (Breslin) while still ending as unexpectedly as possible.

The cinematography is amazing. The directorial duo, husband and wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, manage to find incredible beauty in the most mundane of environments, true to the nature of their film. Simple, beautiful shots of highways zooming over the camera are genuinely breathtaking, deserving of real praise. Although I saw the film in a tiny cinema, surrounded by only a few other audience members, by the end of the movie we were all on the edge of our seats, more than a few of us with tears in our eyes. The film's suspense is formidable, built up by characters that we really care for. By the time the film's credits rolled up the dark screen, applause filled the tiny cinema. We were all on our feet, clapping to filmmakers, actors and directors who would never hear our applause. Nevertheless the film is so perfect that it deserves all this praise and more. Little Miss Sunshine is not your normal dysfunctional family movie. Just like its characters it's about as unusual as they come. But that's what truly makes it so special.

The dysfunctional Hoover family in Little Miss Sunshine.
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