06 September 2006

current cinema: Little Miss Sunshine


starring: Abigail Breslin, Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, and Alan Arkin
written by: Michael Arndt
directed by: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
R, 101 min, 2006, USA

Six family members, all with their own quirks and foibles, embark on a road trip in a VW van. Such is the premise of Sundance favorite Little Miss Sunshine, an endearing indie comedy where bickering relatives learn to come together as a family, despite their differences. It sounds like the theme to any number of films because, well, it's a story as old as the art form itself. Dysfunctional people have been learning to get along on screen from the days of W.C. Fields to the modern-day epics like National Lampoon's Vacation (1983) and Wes Anderson's The Royal Tennenbaums (2001). Along the way, it's been done poorly, it's been done exceptionally, but above all it's been done. So, to paraphrase my old writing professor[1], if you're going to tell that story, you have to find a way to put a different twist on it and make it your own.

In the case of Little Miss Sunshine, much of the responsibility lies with first-time screenwriter Michael Arndt, who takes a cast of characters fraught with potential pitfalls--including a suicidal gay Proust scholar (Steve Carell), an aspiring motivational speaker (Greg Kinnear), a heroin snorting grandfather (Alan Arkin), a teenage son (Paul Dano) who's taken a vow of silence thanks to Friedrich Nietzsche, and a little girl in a beauty pageant (Abigail Breslin)--and very nearly avoids all of them. With so many ways this could collapse under its own weight and become the sort of trainwreck sitcom that gets cancelled after three episodes, it's impressive that Arndt simply pulls it off. That he makes it actually work, that the end product will likely be on the fringe of the Best Original Screenplay discussion is a feat that's not to be overlooked.

In accomplishing this, Arndt employs an economy of words, eschewing the long, angry tirades that tend to surface in these types of films and allows the actors to do most of the heavy lifting through a litany of raised eyebrows, sideways glances, and piercing glares. Beyond that, each character has their own unique and competent voice, which gives the screenplay a feeling of authenticity. In other words, Arndt has an ear for honest, believable dialogue that keeps the film's more ludicrous moments from absurdity. But it's the choice to make the sullen teenage completely silent in pursuit of a life's goal that's the most inspired. Too many films resort to showing a teen's intelligence by giving them an "adult" book to read[2] as some sort of poorly conceived prop. However, Paul Dano's Dwayne is silent in response to Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1885), the work in which Nietzsche began to lay out his famous "Will to Power"[3] philosophy, as a means to achieving his goal of enrolling in the Air Force Academy. Of course, this makes Dano's role one of the film's more difficult, and his performance is one of the most nuanced of the year. Dano, who came to prominence in Michael Cuesta's L.I.E. (2001), does more with a small notepad than most actors can wring from the complete works of Shakespeare.

The film's other breakout performance belongs to Abigail Breslin as Olive, the little girl chasing a Miss America dream. She effortlessly holds her own in numerous scenes with her more experienced co-stars, but its in the talent portion of the Little Miss Sunshine competition where she shines with a dance routine that's at the same time horrifying and hilarious, but made all the more sweet when viewed in context of the pageant, which the film portrays as something akin to all nine of Dante's levels of Hell[4]--combined.

It's a harsh commentary on the culture of pageants, to be sure, but it isn't exactly the most difficult thing to ridicule, especially in a society recently reminded of the JonBenét Ramsey tragedy. It's an easy target, a symptom of the film's main flaw. At points, Little Miss Sunshine only bothers to scratch the surface, skipping over what might contain some real depth in favor for an easy answer, quick joke, or convenient resolution. Thankfully, such moments are brief, and often composed so well by first time feature directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris[5] that few, if any, audience members will notice. Probably because they're too busy laughing.

[1] Dr. S.S. Hanna, author of The Gypsy Scholar: A Writer's Comic Search for a Publisher.

[2] Kurt Vonnegut is a popular choice, especially Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death (1969).

[3] Wikipedia describes it thusly: "living things are not just driven by the mere need to stay alive, but in fact by a greater need to wield and use power, to grow, to expend their strength, and, possibly, to subsume other "wills" in the process." The Nazi's took this idea and ran with it.

[4] As outlined in Dante Alighieri's epic poem The Divine Comedy, written between 1308 and 1321. While none of the circles are places you'd want to vacation, the ninth one seems to be the worst.

[5] They're best known for commercial work, specifically the Volkswagen ad that famously featured Nick Drake's "Pink Moon".

A note on the formatting tweaks:

Loyal readers may notice a slight change in the way titles are now presented. The answer is that several members of the film blog community got together and have decided on a standard by which we'll all try to adhere. Details can be found here.


johanna said...

as usual, you've pulled breadth and depth where i saw nothing.

the only thing i have to say is that this reminds me a lot of why i wouldn't want something i wrote to be interpreted and directed by someone incompetent and seriously lacking in vision

levi said...

"Dano... does more with a small notepad than most actors can wring from the complete works of Shakespeare."

That's a bold statement. And I like it.

As much as I appreciate snappy dialogue, it's refreshing to be moved by looks, movement, and expressions.

lucas said...

not enough screenwriters have the courage to write non-verbals. it's easier to just have the character say it, but it's not nearly as effective.