LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006)


directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, written by Michael Arndt

Nothing makes me feel more like a miserable old grouch than being the only one in the cinema who isn't laughing -- even when there are only twelve people in the cinema. And so it was with Little Miss Sunshine. As the minutes dragged by, my friends alternately giggled, chuckled and roared as demanded, and I could only stare at them with the grim sanctimony of a Christian sure his godless colleagues are going to Hell. And at the end, they sat there basking in an almost post-coital glow, while I couldn't get out of the building quickly enough.

I'm sorry, darlings, but Little Miss Sunshine stinks like day-old tripe. The warning signs are there from the start; we are introduced to a quirky, lovable dysfunctional family, and the dread auguries of feelgood are stamped all over them. After a few moments with these people, we know with tiresome certainty that lessons will be learned, wisdom will be imparted, life goals will be readjusted, and family values will come to be cherished. One can only assume a crash position and wait for it all to pass.

The family seems designed to tick off all the points a sentimental liberal would look for. Dad (Greg Kinnear) begins as the villain of the piece (until his inevitable heartwarming turnaround) -- an unsuccessful motivational speaker who lives by his "nine-step plan for success", obsessed with "winners" and "losers", always attempting to drill a "winner" mentality into his family. He's the butt of everyone's irritation, and so calculated to be hateful that I couldn't help warming to him just to spite everyone. His father (Alan Arkin), a heroin-snorting grandpa, had the opposite effect on me. This rebel in his old age, kicked out of his old folk's home, who solicits porn, swears, does drugs and advises his grandson to "fuck as many girls as possible", is so calculated to raise cheap laughs from the gallery that I couldn't wait for the fucker to kick the bucket. It's a sure sign of desperation when movies play the "pensioner who says fuck" gag, and Little Miss Sunshine played it more or less continuously for the first hour.

Mom (Jill Talley) is something of a non-character, a bit of glue linking the rest of her wacky family together. She's looking after her brother, Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), a former college professor recovering from a failed suicide. Frank constantly refers to himself as a "leading authority on Proust", presumably so that a book-of-quotations reference to Proust can be thrown in to summarise everything at the end. He's clearly meant to be the guy most of the audience identifies with; as a newcomer to the family, the early parts of the movie are told from his point of view. No doubt it flatters the viewers to identify with a literary scholar, even though there is nothing about his speech, looks or behaviour that is either literary or scholarly. The character, like most of the others, is just a series of rolled-up quirks and attributes -- gay, professor, suicidal, vain, sardonic, Proust, and 20 hit points -- put together, left there, and not thought about very deeply.

The worst example of such a character is the sulky, awkward teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano), who is on a vow of silence until he can enter pilot academy, communicates via a paper notepad, spends all day working out in his room, and also reads Nietzsche. The relation of Nietzsche to the rest of his condition is not established (other than that everyone knows sulky weirdos read Nietzsche), nor is it clear why such a sensitive soul desires to join the US Air Force and kill people. He's just a bag of unrelated character traits, done for effect.

And finally we have Olive (Abigail Breslin), the little tyke the family has to take to the titular beauty pageant, on a road trip across the country in their VW camper van. She drips with innocent wisdom, and is about as endearing, unaffected and adorable as one could expect in a movie like this, which is to say, far beyond my threshold of pain.

The family road trip is, inevitably, the occasion of lots of farcical and "tragi-comic" events. The farce doesn't work: the comic timing is badly off all round. A lot of scenes are theoretically funny -- push-starting a camper van, leaving the kid behind at a gas station, pushing grandpa's corpse through the window, a striptease at a child beauty pageant -- but they just wilt and die on the screen. The verbal humour doesn't work either; the banter is forced and coarsely scripted, and doesn't ring true. I feel like all these people have met each other for the first time. They're more acutely annoyed by each other's peccadilloes than a real family would be. It strains credibility that the family would be unaware of what goes on at child beauty pageants, and unaware of their daughter's dance routine.

The beauty pageant was the first time I felt physically sick during a movie (though that might have been partly due to the dodgy bolognese I ate beforehand). I was sickened of course by the spectacle itself, which is shown in far too much detail, but also by the cynicism of the filmmakers in uniting both the family and the audience against such a very, very easy target. I'm not impressed by their courage in denouncing child beauty pageants, which, let's be honest, are universally condemned, and which even Michael Jackson probably thinks are a bit weird. Better artists might have attempted to understand the forces that drive such disturbed spectacles, to look at the people involved -- exploited and exploiters -- more deeply and even with some compassion. What kind of society produces child beauty pageants? What kind of people put their children into them? What kind of children result? Are they all really so different from the rest of us? Little Miss Sunshine would seem like an ideal venue to ask such questions -- it's about a family that takes their kid to a beauty pageant, after all -- but instead the filmmakers are content to stay on the surface, and use the pageant as a cheap bogeyman to drive the family back together. The pageant is something monstrous, outside normal experience, outside society: the family are as shocked by the proceedings as we are, and entirely blameless for bringing their daughter to such a thing. With relief, they recognise they are superior to it, and we do the same. The result is a mutual back-patting session between filmmakers and audience, something neither party needs.

So what lessons are we to take from the family's experience? Well, various things along the way, which are all conveniently summarised by the once-mute son: "You do what you love, and fuck the rest." Nice words indeed, but they won't clean the shit out of public toilets. In reality, such teachings could only come from the mouth of a comfortable first-world liberal, whose well-being depends on the back-breaking slavery of dozens of people less well off. "Do what you love, and fuck the rest" might send people back to the suburbs with a warm glow, but does anyone love extracting ores from a dark underground hole? Or getting up at 6am to till the fields? Or cleaning puke off the streets on Sunday morning? This is simply not an attitude that would create a working or pleasant society -- it's irresponsible, and insincere. It's words like these that make me increasingly exasperated with modern liberalism (and I like to think I'm saying this from somewhere further to the left). In reality, "liberals" of this kind are fully-paid-up supporters of the inequalities in society, who don't want to change a damn thing about it, in spite of the occasional "let them eat cake"-like statement they allow themselves.


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