I originally planned on not reviewing Little Miss Sunshine, primarily due to a lack of time. But after seeing the film (twice, actually, which is a rarity for me), I can see that this would be a tremendous mistake. Just for this movie, I am adding a star rating system. Because the movie is just that good.
Again, this italicized introduction (and the stars) do not count against my 500 words. But the following words do:
Little Miss Sunshine is the best movie since The Life Aquatic. Similar to that movie, Sunshine is a bittersweet, humorous yet misanthropic look at family. Also similar to Life Aquatic, Sunshine is not a comedy in the classical sense. It is a tragedy.
I’m big on tragedies. Most stories worth telling are tragedies. As Mr. Marshall pounded into my brain in AP Comp and Lit, tragedy isn’t about disaster or despair. It is about hope and renewal. It is the stripping away of old, dead tissue so that new growth may take place. That is what Little Miss Sunshine is all about.
Although perhaps my most-anticipated movie of the summer, I honestly thought there was no way that Sunshine could live up to expectations. After taking Sundance by storm and getting positive testimonials from every reviewer in the universe, I wondered how it was possible that a little independent film could be so widely accepted. Turns out it’s because it’s really good.
As the movie opens, we are dropped directly into a household and given only a few moments to get our bearings. There is a subtle yet tangible animosity in this family and the tension begins to build almost immediately. The movie rapidly builds into the classic “road trip” picture, which I’ve always avoided, but this was somehow different. All the driving in the movie serves as a way to build the tension necessary for a tragedy. There are a few jokes and plot elements that I found to be clichéd or a bit dumb, but they are easily outweighed by a few moments that are tremendously courageous and serve to remind us that we are watching more than just fluff. The long conversations in the car could be intractable, but the character acting is largely good enough and the family members bounce off of each other so well that the scenes stay amusing.
The acting is mostly superb. I’m usually wary of Steve Carell, but he is amazing in this film. I want to see him play other characters like Frank. Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette are both good (and suitably mundane) as middle-class parents, Paul Dano gives a strong performance as Dwayne, his complexity coming as a pleasant surprise although I don’t quite buy his given age of fifteen. I’m not a big fan of Alan Arkin’s character but his performance does wonders to advance the story. Abigail Breslin is fine as Olive, although I maintain that the only truly “good” performance I’ve ever seen from a child actor was Flora Guiet in Amélie.
The ending works. It shouldn’t. On paper, it doesn’t. But somehow it does. Like any good tragedy, it gives the balloon of tension a little pinprick. But it does so in a superbly unexpected way.
Little Miss Sunshine is a mix of smart comedy, great characters and touching moments that point to an underlying humanity that’s becoming rare in film. The fact that so many people like it gives me hope.