**** out of ****
Last week I bemoaned the film “Tomorrow is Today” for not having the cajones to take its clich/d origins and make the story into something fresh and compelling.
Thankfully, the new comedy “Little Miss Sunshine” suffers from none of those problems.
In fact, “Sunshine” suffers from few, if any, problems. It is a delightfully, and sometimes painfully, funny comedy that takes an old concept – the road movie – and turns it into something with intellect and depth.
The film follows a family of losers who drive cross-country in a Volkswagen bus with a propensity for breaking down. Their goal: Make it to the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, where the daughter of the family, Olive (played by 10-year-old Abigail Breslin), is a contestant.
Along with Olive’s parents, played to the hilt by Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette (females know her from “In Her Shoes”), other family members include Steve Carell as Collette’s brother (a gay, suicidal, Proust-scholar), Paul Dano as the Nietzsche-obsessed son who has taken a vow of silence, and Alan Arkin as the heroine-snorting, foul-mouthed but good-hearted grandfather.
All the players in this ensemble comedy are top-notch, and their performances are what makes the film such a buoyant delight.
Breslin is wonderfully natural as the bespectacled beauty queen-aspirant.
Her greatest moments in the film come when her precociousness cuts through her family’s fantastically dysfunctional behavior, like when she asks Carell’s character why he wanted to kill himself or when she convinces her brother to come back to the car after an unforeseen event causes him to throw a tantrum.
Kinnear also exhibits undeniable skill in playing an arrogant, blindly optimistic motivational speaker.
His character is the most unlikable in the film, which makes his gradual breakdown from a catch-phrase spouting “winner” to a desperate loser with a consequences-be-damned attitude all the more fun to watch.
Carell gives the most surprising performance of the film, yet it shouldn’t be surprising to those who noticed the nuance in his performance as Andy in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”
Carell doesn’t go over-the-top with his role. Instead, he creates a real character whose mannerisms are funny and whose sarcasm masks a deep but knowing sadness.
Everything in “Little Miss Sunshine” is a bit off-kilter, from the characters to the situations, to the score by Boulder’s own DeVotchKa.
But it is not quirky for quirky’s sake. The film is actually profound in the way it deals with its themes of suffering and artifice.
The characters in the film start out as losers, but the crucibles of the road and the beauty pageant allow them to achieve an authentic, hard-won happiness. This is the best film of the summer.
Staff writer Jeff Schwartz can be reached at email@example.com.