Saturday, September 1, 2012

Failing To Shine; Bursting The Hype Of Little Miss Sunshine

The Good: Steve Carell's acting, Moments of social commentary
The Bad: Not funny, Not amusing, Not entertaining - Miserable tone!
The Basics: In a disappointingly stark movie, characters are introduced and they spend a journey from New Mexico to California not growing until the movie simply ends.

I was having a conversation with a friend about the Oscars and I made the comment that the reason the Oscars are done annually is because we need a marker for "the best of what we have" as opposed to "the best of what could be." In simpler terms, if the Academy held out for movies that all reached a certain standard, there might not be Oscars every year. There would be no best picture in a year lacking extraordinary films. This is why the Oscars have to be done annually; otherwise, it might be two, three, even five years between Oscar ceremonies. Never have I believed this more than after watching Little Miss Sunshine, one of the five nominees for last year's Best Picture award.

When Olive Hooper makes it into the finals of the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, her family packs themselves up into a broken-down VW Bus and heads from New Mexico to Southern California. The family, miserable over the failures and foibles of one another, becomes progressively more miserable as they travel, save Olive, whose sunny disposition makes it seem like she might be a contender. As the journey goes on, obstacles pop up to thwart the attempt to get Olive to the pageant on time.

Wow, was this a bad movie. Reviewers and critics keep calling this a gem of a movie and I think they're full of it. Here's why: all of the characters are either miserable or obnoxious. Every single one. Olive, perhaps the least offensive, is guilty solely of being an excited kid. Richard is a motivational speaker who can't sell his motivational program, his wife is essentially a doormat, and they are raising one of the most annoying - though well-motivated teenagers in film history. Uncle Frank is a suicidal homosexual who becomes the most empathetic (I wanted to kill myself just watching this miserable bunch!) and Grandpa is the new cliche of the uninhibited, cranky elder who is less responsible than the youngest. The thing here is that all of these characters are miserable and if I wanted miserable characters, I could have spent time with my own family rather than watching this one on screen.

So, what does Little Miss Sunshine do right? I like the concept. Road movies, miserable family movies, movies with gay characters, movies with suicidal characters, these are all things I usually get right behind. If anything, I was biased toward the concept doing into the movie. I liked the conceptual message about the beauty pageant at the end of the movie. Olive's routine is the perfect hyperbole of the direction these insane beauty pageants for CHILDREN go. The reaction of some of the judges, I thought, was amusing as it revealed the psychosis of the culture surrounding these type of pageants.

Two of the characters and actors worked perfectly, as well. Paul Dano plays Dwight, the teenage son who has taken a vow of silence after reading Nietzsche. While the characterization is betrayed for plot predictable convenience, Dwight is an interesting, if completely angry, character. Dano manages to portray the youth with an angry indifference that is hard to sustain. Of course, spending time with this family could make anyone sustain this level of anger.

If there is a gem in Little Miss Sunshine, it is Steve Carell. Carell plays Frank, who has inadvertently survived a suicide attempt and is miserable. I applaud Little Miss Sunshine for presenting the idea that youth should be told about homosexuality and suicide so as to destigmatize both and Carell plays Frank with a seriousness and desperation that I've not seen in him in any other role. He is utterly convincing as the reluctant survivor and as he quietly suffers throughout the movie, he becomes the most empathetic character on screen.

The other actors either fail to dazzle or fail to act. Newcomer Abigail Breslin, who portrays Olive, is essentially playing a young girl on her quest to be a star. Breslin is a young girl getting into acting, so this role is not much in the way of an acting challenge. Similarly, I was seriously underwhelmed by Oscar-winner Alan Arkin as Grandpa.

I like movies that defy "types" and I can live with dark movies (Magnolia and The Empire Strikes Back are two of my top three favorites and Brazil remains my absolute favorite film). I usually have a problem with schmaltzy life-affirming drecht, but even on that front, a well-messaged movie can satisfy me (see The Spitfire Grill, reviewed here!). Little Miss Sunshine fails, in part, because it mixes the types at all the wrong times. So, for example, Frank's story could go pretty much either way to satisfy the viewer with his character arc; he could succeed in trying to kill himself again or he could get over his problems and become determined to live. Ultimately, he does neither and after a particularly brutal character moment for Frank in the movie, his character essentially is dropped. There's no resolution, there's no growth, there's simply a disappearance of the issues that make Frank intriguing to watch. In a similar fashion, Richard's character ends the film without direction, which seems necessary given how much time is spent exploring - and shattering - his dreams.

Little Miss Sunshine is a stark movie, with a minimal soundtrack that contributes to the feeling that this is an empty movie. The length of the song near the end of the movie contrasts the rest of the film in a way that is painfully drawn out. I suppose Nietzsche might enjoy the starkness of the film and perhaps that was the point by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (how it took two people to direct this, I'll never know!), but if it was, it failed on that front, too. The emptiness of the movie creates a vacuum that can only be filled by compelling characters that the viewer empathizes with. We do not. In Magnolia, P.T. Anderson creates an emotionally wrenching atmosphere and he uses an operatic soundtrack (sometimes literally, as he uses "Carmen") to connect the viewer to the characters and connect the characters to a larger world and the viewer. Lacking that, Little Miss Sunshine is simply void.

And, as with any road movie, part of the question that ought to be asked is "Is it about the journey or the destination?" Kevin Smith laments about Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back that the studio insisted on getting the protagonists out of Jersey and into California as quickly as possible and in the commentary, it's amusing to hear him say how they insisted it was one type of movie and he just didn't realize it (telling a writer-director what type of movie they have created probably means either the artist or the businesspeople have missed something, I vote that it's usually the error of the studio, not the creator). Little Miss Sunshine fails here as well. While the majority of the movie is spent on the road, suggesting that what is important here is the journey, the characters do not truly grow as a result of the journey. For each character - even Dwayne whose characterization becomes defied and voided by the trip - the journey simply is an opportunity to reinforce who they already are. They do not grow and change so much as illustrate the initial characterization that we are given from the outset.

And if the movie is truly about the destination, it's a long way to go for so sleight a punchline.

Little Miss Sunshine is hailed as an artistic movie that came out of obscurity to triumph. Instead, it serves as a cautionary tale for the seductiveness of advertisers; not all small films are good and Little Miss Sunshine starts with a weak script, populates the celluloid with mediocre acting (with the above-mentioned exceptions), stark direction and the result is a film that goes nowhere. There are much better small films, even if they did not receive the press of Little Miss Sunshine.

For other films with Abigail Breslin, please check out my reviews of:
Definitely, Maybe
No Reservations
The Princess Diaries 2: A Royal Engagement


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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