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Arts and Entertainment

Film Review: Little Miss Sunshine

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Any movie where Steve Carell plays a gay, suicidal professor who has proclaimed himself the world's #1 Proust scholar is okay by me. Actually, it's better than okay. Throw in Alan Arkin as a heroin-snorting grandfather (isn't it cool when old people do hard drugs?), Greg Kinnear as a would-be motivational speaker and Abigail Breslin as a little girl with dreams of child beauty pageant stardom, stuff them into a dilapidated Volkswagen bus along with a couple more harried family members, take them on a cross country road trip, and you've got a very dark, funny movie.

Taking its title from the beauty pageant of the film's climax, Little Miss Sunshine is the first feature film from directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Unlike some of their contemporaries who have jumped to features from music videos and commercials, Dayton and Faris have a fine grasp of the subtleties of human behavior and feelings.

While the comedy in this film is both situational and character-driven, the directors never make the kookiness feel forced or allow it to spill over the top and become slapstick. They are helped by understated performances from Carell, Kinnear and Toni Colette, who plays the struggling matriarch of the Hoover clan. But the cast is anchored by Abigail Breslin, who gives a winning performance as Olive, the baby of the family. Unlike that kid from the Juicy Juice commercials (and virtually every other English-speaking child actor currently working) she doesn't make me want to punch her. But seriously, Breslin (AKA the girl from Signs) is refreshingly natural in the role of an ordinary kid who loves performing but doesn't have any particular talent for it. In fact, nobody in this movie has much of a talent for anything.

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Cantankerous and profane, Grandpa has been kicked out of his retirement home. Dad can't cut it as a motivational speaker. And mom wants only to hold them all together but can barely do that. Little Miss Sunshine is all about thwarted desire and learning to cope with the ordinary-ness of everyday life, and its strength is its sincerity as well as its sense of humor. Rather than a brittle satire of suburban life, Dayton and Faris have created a sincere and unironic comedy about mismatched oddballs struggling to express their individual identities while clinging to the bonds of family, however that word may be defined.

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