Little Miss Sunshine
In one way or another we all come from a dysfunctional family. For most if you don’t have to make allowances for restraining orders or parole violations while planning a family reunion you are pretty much ahead of the curve. Many of us grew up watching television shows like ‘Leave it to Beaver’, ‘The Donna Reed Show’ and ‘Father Knows Best’ and used that as a standard by which to judge all families, including our own. The problem is those series depicted an impossible bar to reach and in the final analysis it is the quirky dysfunctions that we all have that make life with your family so interesting. In 2006 a little independent movie hit the scene and the world of film found that it had a new classic on its hands. The movie was ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ and it is a prime example that a group of dedicated people with extremely limited resources can out do the major studios in terms of sheer quality of production and enjoyment. There was a time when the universe of Indy films and that of the major studios rarely intersected. Independent films were those little flicks full of hidden meaning and strange allegory that were only shown at a few obtuse festivals and in art houses in some large cities or college towns. Then something wonderful happened; the general population discovered the truth about Indy films; there is a lot of great films to be found there.
With the advent of the DVD and internet an increasing number of people embraced films outside those shown in the local Cineplex. Smaller films that would never stand a chance of being seen by a large audience were becoming more popular than Hollywood flicks that cost thousands of time more to make. This forced the hand of the large studios and many acquired smaller independent oriented companies under their mega umbrella. One such case was with the Indy division of 20th Century Fox’ ‘Fox Searchlight films’ that purchased the distribution rights to ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ after a showing at the Sundance Film Festival. The film originally cost $8 million to make, was sold for $10.5 million and would go on to rake in a domestic box office of close to $60 million. If you do the math, which the studio executives certainly have, you will discover that this is a great investment. Other tiny Indy flicks have gone on to become extremely successful so the point here is there are independent film makers who can out shine and out produce the bug boys in the studios. The money is important in thinking about a movie like this mostly because it goes to show that the cast and crew were dedicated and it paid off. Now other gems like this can be produced. In the case of ‘Sunshine’ the film is amazingly well constructed. With a limited budget and time to pull it all together the film makers did a resounding job of bringing one of the freshest movies about a messed up family to the screen. The DVD edition of the film has been out for a few years but now it is joined by a beautifully mastered Blu-ray edition. This is the little film that tried and succeeded and will quickly become a favorite for you if it is not already.
The script here is amazing. It is sharp, witty and insightful; a very rare thing in films of late. It was written by Michael Arndt and the incredible thing is this is his first screenplay. If you just read the themes used in the story you would never would imagine that this is a comedy. There is drug abuse by a senior citizen, a suicide attempt and a discussion of existential philosophy. Okay in the spirit of full disclosure this is an ‘R’ rated dark comedy but still Arndt managed to pull it off in a funny yet poignant fashion. The family he created for this story can only see bizarre in their rear view mirror; they are way past the point of your run of the mill dysfunctions. The head of the family is the dad, Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear) who works as a motivational speaker. He has a nine point system for success and although he applies it to most aspects of his life has never been able to rise to any measure of accomplishment. His wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) is a homemaker in the loosest sense of the word. Mostly she is frantic and distracted trying her level best to keep the family from self destructing. Their daughter live (Abigail Breslin) is fascinated with all sorts of beauty pageants and watches them with an obsessive wild eyed wonder. Recently she placed second in an under ten competition and wants to go on to the big time in Florida. Sheryl and Richard also have a teenaged son Dwayne (Paul Dano) who has taken a vow of silence and is infatuated with the works of Nietzsche. Also living with them is Uncle Frank (Steve Carell) who just lost everything from his lover to his job and reputation in a recent scandal. Last there is Grandpa (Alan Arkin) who was thrown out of the nursing home for his sexual escapades and his perchance for sorting heroin. This family is about as far away from the Nelsons as you can get.
Directing the film is a husband and wife team; Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. I have to admit that I had some degree of trepidation before I saw the film when I read their previous experience was in directing music videos and commercials. Usually that doesn’t bode well since the techniques that are intended for something that lasts 30 seconds to a couple of minutes is tiresome for a feature length movie. I am glad to admit that I was completely wrong in this case. They have a graceful style that comes across as easy going and natural. They never lose track of the overall narrative of the story and allow sufficient time for the characters to develop and grow. They take situations that you have seen many times in the past and package them in such a delightful way that you can’t help but get pulled into the strange lives of this family. They also had the advantage of working with some of the finest actors around. Kinnear is great as the motivational speaker who can’t move anyone not even himself, He has to live vicariously through the anticipated success of his young daughter. Collette becomes the perfect foil to his character. She plays Sheryl as someone too busy with keeping the family moving to be concerned with steps and plans. I have been a huge fan of Mr. Arkin for decades. He has a quite demeanor that can explode in a second and is the only actor who could have pulled off a role like this. The true breakout star here is young Miss Breslin. She is adorable but her appeal goes far beyond that. For one so young she has mastered her craft better than actors who have been working twice as long as she has been alive.
I have seen this film many times before on cable and regular DVD but watching it on Blu-ray was like experiencing it for the first time. The colors never looked brighter or more realistic. The palette is rich; leaping off the screen. The DTS HD audio is nothing short of excellence with a sound stage that enfolds you completely. There are also a nice selection of extras to add to your enjoyment of the film. This is a must have movie.