Right around the time Little Miss Sunshine came out, we were always seeing dysfunctional families taking road trips through the country in hilarious fashion, and it makes for an entertaining time when talking about National Lampoon’s Vacation, or it leads to being forgettable in a matter of seconds like RV, which came out the same year. Now, we have a more realistic take on the concept that can’t be ignored when it’s a feel-good time.
What’s the Story: The Hoover family isn’t what you called a perfect family. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a failed motivational speaker while his wife Sheryl Hoover (Toni Collette) is in a content state of stress at the moment. After getting the news that their year-old daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) is qualified for the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant, they decided to make their way from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Redondo Beach, California for the chance to win big. Driving to their two-day destination also includes Sheryl’s Prost scholar brother Frank (Steve Carell), their teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano), and their grandfather Edwin (Alan Arkin) in a Volkswagen T2 Microbus, it’s going to be challenging, but it will all be worth it in the end.
Little Miss Sunshine wasn’t on my radar when it first came out. That might be because I didn’t really care about these small indie movies back then when I was more focused on movies that a ten-year-old would like and used to have terrible taste of. The film was a huge deal at the Sundance Film Festival as it had one of the biggest deals ever when Fox Searchlight Pictures bought the distribution rights ($10.5 million). Leave it up to them to make the right call. Husband-and-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris made their directorial debut with this, and it makes for one impressive debut that you honestly can’t believe that they’ve been doing music videos for bands such as Smashing Pumpkins and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Now that’s an impressive resume. In one of those cases where the hype might be true, it’s real since it’s a wonderful dark comedy that’s impossible to dislike.
Their direction takes its time to get into the flow of how this family dynamic operates, not ruining the established tone. Through this trip, we honestly see that this family isn’t perfect, but what family isn’t from every part of the world. Most of the characters come off as jerks, yet you’re still able to be attached to them when it comes to the tough times they might go through. Even if it means dealing with the respective problems that all of them have. The character of Dwayne is the teenage kid that hates everybody. You’re never really bored whenever they’re driving on the road because you’re interested in what’s brought up.
The ensemble is nothing short of flawless, as these are the perfect people to play the Hoover family. Kinnear doesn’t disappoint as Richard, the kind of father that tries so hard to win what he can when he’s a failed motivational speaker. Collette playing the mother in a movie is never a surprise, but I would say this is one of her best roles to date. Dano gives off the more impressive role when his character, Dwayne, doesn’t say anything since he took a vow of silence when training for flight school. Breslin was well-known for being in Signs before this, but this is the ultimate breakout role that will forever be attached to her. I loved her as Olive, as she just had that spirit that’s captured right for a youthful girl her age. She became one of the youngest actresses to get a Best Supporting Actress, and we were the same age when it happened. What was I doing when I was 10?
For me, my favorite performance that I couldn’t stop thinking about was Steve Carell as Frank. His character is being taken care of after he tried to commit suicide after a guy he liked didn’t like him back. Before this, everybody knew him as the comedy guy, especially when this came out right as The Office was finding its footing. This is my favorite role he has ever done, and this showcased his range in one of his more dramatic roles that we’ll see later on in his career. But then you have Arkin as another scene-stealer as the heroin-snorting taking Edwin, who’s moved into the Hoover home after getting kicked out of the retirement home and coaches Olive with her routine. He plays the type of grandfather who doesn’t give a frick what’s going on with his or anyone’s life. There’s a scene he shares with Breslin in the motel that emotional the more I thought about, especially when Arkin comforts her by saying, “You know what a loser is? A real loser is somebody that’s so afraid of not winning, they don’t even try.”
What makes Little Miss Sunshine a great film is that it has a healthy balance of comedy and drama. Writer Michael Arndt, who went on to co-write the screenplays for Toy Story 3 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, also began his career in putting together an original movie that’s heartfelt on one end, and leans to being sad on the other. It’s unusual to start a van and the family has to push it to run, having to hop on while it’s moving since it can’t stop. For example, there’s a heartbreaking moment when Dwayne realized he’s color-blinded, meaning he can’t fly jets. He runs out of the van and has an understandable meltdown, marking this as the first time we’ve heard Dano say anything. But the one scene that ever remembers, even if you’ve never seen this, is Olive’s talent. The best thing about this is that we were never shown what she was going to do at home, so when it was revealed she was dancing to Rick James’ “Super Freak,” that is what you call comedy gold, my friend. I personally believe that scene got Breslin that nomination. What made it even better is when the rest of the family joins in and just lets loose in the awkwardness and fun of it all.
There’s a great message kept in here that was well-realized half-way through the film: Never give up. Sometimes winning never wins anything a lot of times in life. Being a loser doesn’t necessarily mean a bad thing when it means you tried your hardest, no matter the circumstances. Richard doesn’t want to see failure with himself or his family. After Edwin passed away, they still decided to travel to California because they are sure that Olive will take the win, since they know Grandpa would’ve wanted that. Trying is all that matters. Not only that, but this made a great point about beauty pageants. I’ve never been a fan of them since I hate how it sexually exploited little girls to not being themselves at a young age. Where Olive should just be herself and don’t just be like all the other girls in the competition. The more you think about the film, it doesn’t have a happy ending as not everything is given its trophy.
This was a huge hit in 2006, which came to show Fox Searchlight wasn’t messing around with comedy-dramas that will find an audience. Not only did it win four Independent Spirit Awards (Best Feature, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, and Best First Screenplay), it made a big impression at the Oscars the following year, as it was nominated for Best Picture and earned respective statues for Arkin for Best Supporting Actor and Arndt for Best Original Screenplay. As for Dayton and Faris, they went to later helm 2012’s Ruby Sparks, the underrated 2017 sports dramedy Battle of the Sexes, and took charge behind the camera with Netflix’s latest series Living With Myself.
Little Miss Sunshine is certainly a winner, not a loser. This just comes to show that even the smallest of films can come out of nowhere and can be seen as a success in anyone’s eyes. Just name another movie where it has first-time directors and a screenwriter, and the results are sky-high. There’s never a weak link when it comes to any of the performances, the direction, or the brilliant writing in what has become one of the best movies to come out in 2006.
Overall Grade: A-