Little Miss Sunshine

Mining the dysfunctional family dynamic is a favorite for movie screenplays, but few do it as painfully as Little Miss Sunshine.  "Painful" is the appropriate word because while the screenplay is hilarious, it comes largely as a result of the prolonged arguments and disagreements between the various members of the Hoover family.  It may be fitting that the directors, Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris, are married.  Perhaps they have a better insight on what can set people off into a rage, without actually resulting in physical violence.  Dayton and Faris, working off Michael Arndt's script, mix together the wacky and sometimes surreal in a long road trip from Arizona to Redondo Beach, California.

Their strategy is to throw together combustible personalities into a van and wait for them to explode.  The patriarch of the Hoover family is Richard (Greg Kinnear, Bad News Bears, The Matador), a wannabe motivational speaker trying to peddle his book on his nine steps to success.  To Richard, people are either winners or losers.  Richard's wife Sheryl (Toni Collette, The Night Listener, In Her Shoes) is the most anonymous one; she's the harried housewife.  Their son Dwayne (Paul Dano, The King, The Ballad of Jack and Rose) is fascinated with the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, and has taken a vow of silence until he gets into the Air Force Academy.  Oh, and he hates everybody.  His sister Olive (Abigail Breslin, The Princess Diaries 2, Raising Helen) is an aspiring beauty pageant contestant.  Richard's father (Alan Arkin, Firewall, Eros) is an acerbic, drug-taking, pornography-lovin' senior citizen who is also helping Olive with her routine.  If this wasn't insane enough, into the mix comes Sheryl's brother Frank (Steve Carrell, Over the Hedge, The 40 Year-Old Virgin), American's foremost Proust scholar who just tried to commit suicide over something involving one of his students (whom he fell in love with) and America's second most renowned Proust scholar.

Olive discovers that she now qualifies for the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in Californian, causing an impromptu road trip in a beat up VW bus.  The confined space and general lack of spending money causes the situation to become even more tense.  It sounds mightily contrived, and in a manner it is, but everything seems a bit more wacky and original.  The characters each have their one specific quirk, but thankfully, the script gives them more to their personality, and the cast is talented enough to add depth and heart to their performances.   This is a family that wants to strangle itself, but at the same time, genuinely loves each other.  They just have a difficult time expressing it.  The humor comes not from the filmmakers mocking each person, but in the sad/bitter way they interact with each other.

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Good.
1 hour, 41 minutes, Rated R for language, some sex, and drug content.

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