Little Miss Sunshine
By Brett McCracken
August 23, 2006
The buzz about Little Miss Sunshine began when it showed at Sundance in January and was the “it” film which sparked the obligatory bidding war among studios hoping to buy it for distribution. The major studios now have what are called “specialty units” (Universal has Focus Features, Warner Bros has Warner Independent, etc), created to produce and distribute artsy, awards-seeking “prestige” pictures that feed the increasing niche market for those kinds of films. Sunshine epitomizes the type of movie these “specialty” companies look for—a smart, off-beat, well-acted, stylish, low-budget film with quirky laughs, occasional tears and the kind of philosophy-lite that bourgeois dilettantes can unobtrusively discuss on the five minute walk out of the theater to the car.
In a word, Sunshine is formulaic. And this is really too bad, because the actors are great and the setup has potential, but the film’s fatal flaw is its self-awareness. It knows it wants to be a crowd-pleasing indie-pop award-winner, and in the efforts to become so the film loses its originality and takes on a cookie-cutter persona that, at least to me, is a bit distasteful.
The film, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, is an ensemble family drama/road movie that gets off to a strong start with the patriarch of the family, Richard (Greg Kinnear), giving a corporate motivational speech to a half-empty classroom on his “9 Steps Refuse to Lose” program. This, juxtaposed with the precious little Olive (the ever-cute Abigail Breslin) gawking at and imitating the Miss America pageant on T.V., makes clear the themes of the film—winning, losing and the American dream—in succinct, from-the-get-go fashion.
Soon the film’s “indie by the book” formula becomes evident, however, as we are introduced to the proverbial rag tag assortment of characters, each with their unique quirks and struggles. There’s the gay, suicidal uncle who is the nation’s leading Proust scholar (Steve Carell); the drug-taking, f-bomb dropping Grandpa (Alan Arkin); the angsty, mute-because-he’s-mad teenager Dwayne (Paul Dano) and the pillar of normalcy in the family, mother Sheryl (Toni Colette).
The whole bunch piles into a decrepit yellow VW van for a road-trip from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach for the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty contest. Olive is an aspiring pee-wee beauty queen (in the creepy JonBenet sense) and the family, led by “second place is the first loser” dad at the wheel, will do anything to get her to the pageant in time to compete.
Of course, the journey is packed with all sorts of escapades, calamities and family strife/reconciliation, an amalgam of situations we’ve seen many times before (some kind of mix between National Lampoon’s Vacation, Life as a House and the last 10 minutes of Napoleon Dynamite).
The film’s “message” is clear enough, if not from the opening minutes of the film then at least by the end: winning isn’t everything in life, and being true to yourself and those who you love is more important than how you stack up in the rat race. It’s certainly a lesson we can use—that “the last shall be first” and unheralded virtues triumph in the end. And there’s a nice Americana about it all—the sort of “open road” optimism that is aided by the sagebrush Southwest scenery on full display throughout.
But these positives, in addition to the fact that I laughed along with the audience throughout most of the film, could not make up for the fact that I left the theater feeling surprisingly empty. I could never really connect with the characters, because I felt the filmmakers didn’t really care much for them; they were all such stiff stereotypes never penetrable beyond their obvious token struggles. It reminded me of Crash in this sense—good ensemble actors playing specific supporting roles that are plot-servicing (ergo, hyperbolized) more than resonant or profound. It is difficult to make ensemble films that really probe character in nuanced, complex ways, but not impossible (Robert Altman is one director who excels at it). Dayton and Faris give us entertaining characters, sure, but not any that are exceptionally interesting.
To me, Sunshine is the cinematic equivalent of, say, the music of Death Cab for Cutie. That is, inoffensive, audience-conscious indie pop that is easy to like but hard to really love. It is a film which, like Death Cab, is very aware of the “indie/hipster/yuppie” market out there that will latch on to style and non-mainstream just for the style and non-mainstreamness of it. The film is better than most, I’d say, but at the end of the day it’s still just a economic commodity bought and sold back to us, the “indie hipster” niche—one among many markets.
It is dangerous, I think, when “artsy” becomes a word more descriptive of an economic type or genre market than of something truly artistic. But what is art, anyway? If it is something created to meet audience needs and expectations, then Little Miss Sunshine is art. If art is, as George Steiner says, “the most ‘ingressive,’ trans-formative summons available to human experiencing,” then Sunshine is something else.
The folks at Fox Searchlight—the highest bidders at Sundance ($10.5 million)—purchased Sunshine because it was a guaranteed moneymaker and potentially an awards-getter. The filmmakers are okay with that, and the audience it was created for will be as well … But I—call me old fashioned, hypercritical or bitingly cynical—would rather not be fed “artistic” film as a cute commodity.
NOTE: Brett McCracken likes Death Cab for Cutie more than this article implies and has the $50 concert ticket stub to prove it.