There’s something about “Little Miss Sunshine” that halts conventional criticism: It humbly and beautifully asks not to be judged. One cannot evaluate the achievement of its purpose, such as to be a fun family film or a tragicomic road movie, because no such purpose is exactly clear. Even the highly talented actors seem not to be shooting for their best performances, but rather cruising along for the ride.
Take Steve Carell, who plays Frank, a suicidal Proust scholar tormented by failure. The consistently droll Carell brings a refreshing edge of sarcasm to a character who might have otherwise been too dark or boring. When he meets young Olive (the adorable Abigail Breslin) for the first time, he unapologetically exposes the poor child to “grown-up” ideas that include suicide and homosexuality. The scene is humorous precisely because of its shocking honesty — it wins because neither winning nor losing ever really seem possible.
The film, at no point dull or uninteresting, really takes off when Frank and Olive, along with Olive’s parents (Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette), grandfather (Alan Arkin) and brother (Paul Dano), embark on a poorly financed road trip from Albuquerque to California. Olive has her heart set on winning the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, a dazzling fiasco reminiscent of that all-too-ubiquitous JonBenet Ramsey footage. But far too many things get plopped in her way, including a push-start VW bus and her own unwillingness to trade chocolate ice cream for slender beauty.
To make matters worse, each member of Olive’s family is wrapped up in his or her own personal crisis, and no one (not old Grandpa, not self-help guru Dad, not even “the premier Proust scholar in the U.S.”) can get a handle on things. Olive’s mom emerges as the character with the most self-control, but even she, as Collette so precisely conveys, cannot help but unravel. One of the opening shots shows Collette nervously puffing on a cigarette as she navigates through traffic, which captures a sense of anxiety embedded in the film’s plot: a hopeless fear of not winning, of never reaching the prize.
“Little Miss Sunshine” never decides just how funny it wants to be. For every dumb physical stunt there is a piece of subtle, witty dialogue; for every explosion of laughter from the audience there is a hushed, tearful silence. Greg Kinnear as the ambitious but failing father times the excessive crap that pours from his mouth with near perfection, while physically expressing a consuming desperation for a stable life. Alan Arkin as the horny, heroin-snorting grandfather never fails at getting a laugh, nor does Paul Dano’s pantomiming, angst-ridden big brother. Do keep in mind that “Little Miss Sunshine” values intelligence over silliness. Compared to other comedies, it is much more Wes Anderson than “Napoleon Dynamite,” relying mostly (though not completely) on easily overlooked irony.
And it is that intelligence, that high-minded superiority found among details in the script, which makes “Little Miss Sunshine” seem slightly uglier than it might have been. These working-class American characters, driven toward some higher goal of distinction, any escape from the usual squalor they inhabit, are all but looked down upon by screenwriter Michael Arndt, who was too busy (and dare I say, pretentious) injecting Proust and Nietzsche-lite into his lovely story to see that he already had what he needed. Because “Little Miss Sunshine” is quite literally character-driven; it needs little help from the big world of ideas apparently held so dear by Arndt. This is perhaps why attempts at “meaningful” dialogue spoken into the sunset (literally), particularly in later scenes, not only seem trite, but wildly stupid.
Nevertheless, “Little Miss Sunshine” remains an honest, uplifting journey of a film, with seldom a reason to be anything more. It at least deserves to be watched, laughed at and maybe even contemplated, but none should hasten to call it a winner or a loser, because in the arena of family entertainment, “Little Miss Sunshine” does not compete — it merely sparkles like sequined pageant trash.