Little Miss Sunshine

Review by © Jane Freebury

Dysfunctional families are a dime a dozen on screen nowadays. Then, just when you think the movies have milked all they can from the comedy and tragedy of families that don’t work, along comes Olive, a little miss muffet from Albuquerque, to chase that notion away.

We are introduced to her family by way of her Uncle Frank, played by Steve Carell, who I remember with affection in The 40-Year Old Virgin. Here he’s a bearded gay, who used to be the foremost authority on Proust, until he lost out to an academic rival. To add insult to injury, Frank lost a young lover to him too.

Olive’s Mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) has brought him home to stay with the family while he recovers from an attempt at suicide, and Olive is curious about his bandaged wrists. Dad (Greg Kinnear) tries to gag discussion, but he has as much chance of stemming it as of stopping Grandad (Alan Arkin), his live-in father, from spluttering profanities and detailing his sex life.

Olive’s brother Dwayne has taken a vow of silence in response to family life until he is accepted for flight school. He reads Nietzsche and declares he hates everyone, and that means his family too.

The crux to this problem family is Richard (Kinnear), a motivational consultant and well-meaning pain in the neck whose motto is ‘refuse to lose’ – there are winners and losers but anyone can be a winner.

It’s a position from which he can’t resile when an opportunity arises for Olive to take part in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in California – she’s a beauty pageant tragic – so they all set off together in an old VW kombi van, injected with a new lease of life by the toreador music on the soundtrack.

Hilarious moments along the way are pitch perfect dark comedy, as the clutch fails, the horn gets jammed and the kombi doubles as a hearse. And some of the biggest laughs still lie in wait at the end when they all find out what under-10 beauty contests really mean.

A chilling parade really, and topical too, but partner/directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and their team of terrific actors never lose their light touch in this black comedy on American mores. It’s spot-on.

4 stars