Let the Sunshine in

by Glen Baity

Before the leaves change each year, so do the film ads. You can see it happening if you look closely enough: Sure, Invincible looks pretty good, but what’s this Step Up nonsense? The Covenant? Man, that looks bad. And don’t even get me started on that basketball movie starring Wayne Brady.

Yes, the Into the Blue part of the summer is upon us, that mercifully short span between the tail-end of blockbuster season and the beginning of Oscar-pandering season. Last year, it brought us scuba-diving spelunkers and voodoo hexes en masse. This year offers retreads of The Craft and White Men Can’t Jump.

Try and contain your excitement.

It’s in these usually dull weeks that being a moviegoer in Greensboro can work to one’s advantage. This town, as I complain pretty often, doesn’t get most of the smaller, better movies until well after the rest of America has had its shot. So when I started seeing previews for Little Miss Sunshine a few months back, I was all but certain it wouldn’t come to town for a long, long time.

Sure enough, I may well be the last critic in the country to chime in on this blissful little comedy, but I’m almost glad to be out of the loop this time. All the other film critics this week were likely trundling unhappily into theatres to see advance screenings of Crank.

Local audiences, by contrast, can take refuge in Little Miss Sunshine, possibly the best comedy of the year (sorry, Ricky Bobby) and high in the running for one of my favorite comedies of all time.

The film follows young Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) on her quest to California to compete in the somewhat prestigious Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. Accompanying her are the members of her staggeringly dysfunctional family: father Richard (Greg Kinnear), a wannabe self-help guru; brother Dwayne (Paul Dano), a Nietzsche-obsessed teenager who has taken a vow of silence until he’s admitted to the Air Force Academy; Grandpa (Alan Arkin), who was recently kicked out of his senior citizens’ community for snorting heroin; uncle Frank (Steve Carrell), gay, suicidal Proust scholar; and mother Sheryl (Toni Collette), the closest thing to a healthy role model in sight.

The family travels the 800 miles between Albuquerque and the site of the pageant in Redondo Beach, Calif. in their rapidly deteriorating VW Minibus, trading sarcastic barbs and mocking each other’s ideas of happiness, ambition and fulfillment.

But really, with a cast this good, the film almost doesn’t need a plot. This is one of the best ensembles I’ve seen in a long, long time, and they play off each other so perfectly, it’s hard to believe these six actors aren’t actually related. Particularly high marks go to Arkin and Breslin, whose scenes together are completely wonderful and tinged with melancholy, and Carrell, who continues to surprise with his superhuman versatility.

This is an extraordinary film in a lot of ways: Husband and wife director team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris honed their skills on music videos for Weezer, the Offspring and Janet Jackson before spending several years making Little Miss Sunshine, their feature film debut. Also making his inaugural appearance is screenwriter Michael Arndt, whose dark, intensely funny sense of humor shines through brilliantly.

In the course of the film’s fast-paced 100 minutes, Little Miss Sunshine hits virtually every emotional note, getting dangerously bleak in places, though it always finds its way back. At the warm center of this universe is 10-year-old Breslin, who turns in an absolutely phenomenal performance as the indomitable Olive (you might remember her as the youngest of Mel Gibson’s kids in M. Night Shayamalan’s Signs). This is a young actor who deserves a long career, and hers is a performance that rivals the similarly terrific Keke Palmer in Akeelah and the Bee. I’ve never been more optimistic about Hollywood’s next generation than I am right now.

Enough good things really can’t be said about Little Miss Sunshine. I try not to gush too much in the reviews I write, even if I feel an unusual affection for a film, but I can’t think of a single thing this film does wrong. It’s perfectly paced, superbly acted, uplifting without being phony and far and away one of the best films you’ll see this year. Its ultimate message of dogged individuality and perseverance in the face of tremendous odds is familiar without being clichéd, and like everything else here resonates with unwavering honesty. This is a road movie like no other, a unique family drama and an uproarious comedy in one perfectly constructed piece of filmmaking. Rarely has one modest movie boasted so many amazing talents, both old and new. Even if you never go to the movies, make it a point to see this film.

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