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‘Sunshine’ is worthwhile but still falls short

On paper, “Little Miss Sunshine” seems like a can’t-miss idea: It is a black comedy that serves as both an ensemble piece about a dysfunctional family and a biting satire of kiddie pageants. It certainly impressed audiences at this year’s Sundance Film

Festival, where the film was greeted with both a standing ovation and a check for a record $10.5 million from distributor Fox Searchlight.

With this in mind, one question should be asked: Does it live up to the hype? The answer: not quite. “Little Miss Sunshine” is by no means a failure and is actually an interesting film, but it is not as engaging or revelatory as it could have been.

The main focus of “Little Miss Sunshine” is seven-year-old Olive Hoover

(Abigail Breslin) who has dreams of being a pageant winner despite her admittedly average appearance. When she hears about the upcoming Little Miss Sunshine pageant in Redondo Beach, Calif., she begs her family to go. Despite the fact that the pageant is only two days away and they live in New Mexico, Olive’s family decides to make the journey in their broken-down Volkswagen Bus.

With the possible exceptions of Olive and her mother Sheryl (Toni Collette), who appear to be well-adjusted, the Hoover family is an unusual bunch. Olive’s father

Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker who seems to take his job too seriously and is not above applying his “9 Steps to Success” to his family life. His foul-mouthed father (Alan Arkin) snorts heroin and not afraid to speak his mind yet is a loving grandfather who supports Olive’s pageant queen dreams.

Olive’s brother Dwayne (Paul Dano) is a brooding Nietzsche-reading teenager who never speaks because he has decided to take a vow of silence until he joins the Air

Force. Finally, there is Cheryl’s brother Frank (Steve Carell, in a hilariously deadpan

performance), a brilliant yet depressed professional scholar who recently attempted suicide after a male student he was in love with ran off with his academic rival.

Although none of the characters are reduced to the level of two-dimensional cutouts, some of their quirks seem contrived and tacked-on rather than genuine. In

particular, Olive’s grandfather’s habits of snorting heroin and reading porno magazines are seemingly included primarily for shock value. Still, most of the actors are able to rise above their scripted roles and make their characters more human.

Most notably, Breslin is fantastic as Olive. She has an air of confidence and maturity beyond her years, yet she never comes across as unbearably precocious. Olive is portrayed as a character who is caring and intelligent for her age yet is still a regular little girl. Breslin fits this character perfectly.

It is true that “Little Miss Sunshine” is meant to be a comedy rather than a serious character study, yet it is disappointing that the film (a Sundance fave, no less) sometimes relies on tired visual humor. Seeing the family trying to restart their old VW bus by pushing it is only mildly amusing the first time. After three or four of these scenes, it becomes downright annoying.

There are also some predictable hijinks, including the inevitable final mad dash to the pageant and the chaos that takes place on the pageant stage. Thankfully, these scenes do not appear often, although they appear enough to make one wonder what movie the people at Sundance were watching.

Instead, more time should have been spent examining the characters and their relationships with each other. For instance, Richard thinks Frank is weak-willed because of his suicide attempt, but this conflict is not explored in much detail.

The handful of scenes that take place at the actual pageant are ridiculous yet disturbing realistic. All the gory details of child pageants are here, from the overzealous parents to the 8-year-old girls wearing revealing two-piece bathing suits and receiving spray-on tans. Although these scenes do not last long, they say more than enough about the superficiality of the child pageant phenomenon.

Overall, although it was well-acted and fascinating at times, “Little Miss Sunshine” is not quite the work of greatness it could have been.

 

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