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FILM REVIEW ***: Cast Shines in ...Little Miss Sunshine... A Trip to the Beauty Pageant Has Never Been More Enjoyable

By Kapil Amarnath

Little Miss Sunshine

Starring: Steve Carrell,

Toni Collette, and Greg Kinnear

Directed by Jonathan Dayton

and Valerie Faris

Rated R

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“Little Miss Sunshine” is a film that combines two familiar genres – the dysfunctional family and the road trip – into one movie. The film stresses that the American road can free us from our personal burdens to the point of physical liberation. In this story, the end result is the family coming together. Though the screenplay is limiting in its predictability, the film is both funny and thought-provoking right through to its gut-busting finale.

In the initial dinner scene, the chaos that ensues when mother Sheryl (Toni Collette) tries to get everyone to dinner brilliantly mirrors this extended family’s divergent interests. There is Olive (Abigail Breslin), who wants to be a beauty queen at age seven. Uncle Frank (Steve Carell) is a Proust scholar who wants the (male) graduate student of his dreams. Dad Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker who wants a book deal. Dwayne (Paul Dano) is a Nietzsche-worshipping teen who wants desperately to be a fighter pilot. Finally, Grandpa (Alan Arkin) just wants something other than fried chicken for dinner. As the awkward dinner table conversation heats up, a half-forgotten message on the phone says that Olive has won the right to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. Problem is, it’s in California, and the plane tickets cost too much. By necessity, the whole family ends up going on a road trip to California, although the only people who actually want to go are Olive and Grandpa.

As the trip progresses, each of the characters realizes, somewhat predictably, that she will never get what she wants, but that, in the end, the one thing everyone can do is to help Olive get to the one place she wants to go – the pageant.

Over the course of forced confinement in the car, eating at cheap restaurants, and dealing with the broken clutch of their VW bus, the family gradually comes together. However, unlike many family road trip movies, a second element emerges when Grandpa dies.

Arkin’s Grandpa is the exception to a cast of characters who often seem like artificial constructions rather than living feeling human beings. Initially, Grandpa comes off as a grizzled, nasty old man, intent on passing away his final years snorting heroine. But he becomes endearing in his love for Olive and his concern for the family. When he dies, he helps the family unite even more, allowing them to discard their other troubles as they cope with the void left by his death.

First-time directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton do a solid job, offering beautiful shots of the southwest and including relevant songs like Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago.” They are wise in deviating little from the solid screenplay by first-timer Michael Arndt. Each actor embodies and grounds his character, creating a greater connection with the audience. As a result, we laugh with the cast at their own follies and feel their lightness at the end of the film.

The screening was the most enjoyable time that I’ve experienced in a theater since Carell’s last movie, “The 40-Year Old Virgin.” “Sunshine” seems a promising kick-off for the slate of fall movies.