Little Miss Sunshine
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Screenplay by Michael Arndt

The new film from co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, with a script by Michael Arndt, is an accomplished low-budget ensemble comedy that skillfully mines the depths of "hunger, obsession and the flaunting of despair" that critic Stuart Klawens has identified as "the stuff of comedy." It occasionally treads close to the edge of exploitative, condescending ridicule, but manages - by virtue of a tightly-crafted script and especially fine acting by its entire cast - to keep from falling over.

The film follows familiar paths - an eccentric family takes a road-trip - but it is clearly not about "plot," but rather about the characters - not about "a family on a road trip," but about this particular family, these individuals, and how they meet and deal with the vicissitudes that life throws at them. To establish this subtle but crucial distinction is the essential task accomplished here.

There are many pictures of agricultural landscapes, but there is only one "Wheatfield with Crows," only one "The Gleaners," only one "Haystacks at Chailly at Sunrise." What makes these works great is not the "subject matter" per se, but the way it is treated, the way the whole dynamic of color, light, proportion, perspective, technique and so forth come together in a particular way in this particular painting. In the same way, in this film, it is not the broad general outlines, but the carefully, sensitively worked details that make it worth watching.

The family in this case consists of father, Richard, (Greg Kinnear), mother, Sheryl (Toni Collette) and their daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin). Also in the picture are Sheryl's son from her first marriage, Dwayne (Paul Dano), Grandpa, Richard's father (Alan Arkin) and Sheryl's brother Frank (Steve Carrell.)

Everyone is in the midst of a crisis of some sort. Grandpa has been thrown out of the "adult residence" for bad behavior and is facing the end of his life with obscenity-laced defiance. Richard is on the brink of bankruptcy as his attempts to commercially develop his "self-help" program falter. Sheryl is trying to maintain some sense of normalcy amid the chaos around her.

Dwayne has pinned his future on becoming an Air Force pilot and is reading Nietzsche and keeping a vow of silence in support of his goal. Frank has lost his job and his boyfriend and is recovering from a suicide attempt. The only one in the family who seems "normal" is Olive - whose obsession with the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant is nothing more than an ordinary childhood fantasy. No wonder everyone in the family ends up tied-in to her dream.

Olive's family all support her - in their fashion. And the ways they try to help her tell us much of the story of who they are, and end up revealing who they are to one another and to themselves. It is this story of self-discovery and transformation - the stock dynamic of the road movie - that drives the film. As realized here, with sincerity and conviction, in individual ways by characters who are explored as individuals, there are glimmers of recognition and suggestions of insight for all of us.

Along the way, there is plenty of room for satire. Alan Arkin's entire character is a bold send-up of the American stereotype of the sweet, wise, asexual grandfather. Foul-mouthed, horny and irritable, this Grandpa is not "going gentle into that good night" - not by a long freaking shot! Yet his affection for his son, his step-grandson and his granddaughter comes across as genuine, as does the mixture of relish and regret with which he looks back at his own life, and these touching elements provide depth to the story.

The character of Uncle Frank - a gay Proust scholar - makes room for potshots at the politics of Academe, popular notions of success and failure and the psychological dynamics of self-pity. At the same time, his genuine anguish at the loss of love and the need to redefine his identity is touching. Dwayne's portrait gives us a look into the well-springs - both silly and serious - of adolescent self-absorption and the existential absurdity of being an aware, sensitive teen-ager being "prepared" for the insanities of "adult life." His genuine affection for his strange family and his appreciation for their loving presence in the face of his disappointment, in spite of their own problems, shows a dawning maturity that holds hope.

In the character of Sheryl, Arndt takes the opportunity to poke fun at the harried American housewife with her endless round of obligations, her subservience to the seeming necessity of "fast food" in a life under constant pressure, and her helplessness in the face of the overwhelming demands that are placed on her. Sheryl's love and support for her daughter and son, however, and ultimately her love for Richard eventually win the day, and offer the possibility of a way out of a lifestyle based on "running just to keep from falling behind."

Richard's personality and predicament are used to take a few sly digs at the whole New Age, self-help "steps" concept and the self-delusions that power it. And he and Sheryl also present a satirical take on family dynamics and "psychologically-based child-rearing" But his real longing and neediness, his real affection for and connection to his family are never lost in pursuit of the "laughs."

This is the skill of Arndt's script - that it skirts creating caricatures so adroitly while still managing to milk a lot of humor out of the characters. He creates a narrative that is both very funny and poignant by approaching his characters - even the most "ridiculous" aspects of their personalities and behaviors - seriously and respectfully.

But of course, in a film it is the actors who breathe life - life with which we can identify and in which we can believe - into a script. Arndt and co-directors Faris and Dayton (who made a name for themselves in music videos) have the gift of having assembled a very talented cast. Arkin, Collette, Kinnear and Carrell are all veterans who have honed their skills though decades of work. Young Paul Dano and especially Abigail Breslin obviously feel the energy, sincerity and enthusiasm their older peers project, and it brings out the best in them.

That is likely true for all the actors. You can see and feel, in scenes where Arkin and Carrell or Arkin and Kinnear work together, the powerful currents that run between them and give their exchanges an extra charge. That same electricity is present in a critical scene where Breslin gets a final pep-talk from Arkin. You can see that they both believe in what they are saying and feel what they look like they are feeling. Their conviction - which is what enables us to believe in them - is clear.

This is a wonderful performance from Arkin. He could easily have run away with many of his scenes - his character is that powerful - but his respect for the other actors and for the material (likely emphasized and guided by the directors) injected a necessary note of restraint into what in lesser hands could have been a scene-stealing (and movie-wrecking) performance. Kinnear - whose long suit has often been exposing the edginess that may lurk beneath his "All-American" look - plays Richard with care. He exposes his weaknesses in a way that is funny but loving, and humorously undermines his stuffy sense of identity, without ever calling his true inner dignity into question.

Toni Collette - a sadly under-rated actress - shows her talent for comic timing and reaction without ever resorting to mugging. She puts Sheryl across as a deeply caring person who feels - like so many of us in this modern world - out of her depth and close to the end of her tether. Collete manages to make the discomfort this evokes both funny and touching. Steve Carrell was the biggest surprise here. After his smug, arch work in "The Office" and his sometimes funny but ultimately condescending and shallow character development in The Forty Year Old Virgin, his calm, largely dead-pan, throw-away delivery here is perfect to both emphasize Frank's silly pedantry and egotism, and suggest the underlying vulnerability and longing that make the character appealing.

Paul Dano manages to move from a pretty surreal (and very funny) trope on "adolescent alienation" at the beginning of the film, to portray a much softer, more complex and mature person by the end. He accomplishes this transformation with grace and credibility. When he begins to communicate more openly, his "voice," though far different from the impression of angry, cynical withdrawal he projects at the beginning, is still believably in keeping with the personality he has established.

Breslin is appealing and charming, without any of the pretensions of a "movie brat." She is called upon to do some pretty subtle work and with wonderful support from her co-stars - and undoubtedly her directors as well - she does a fine job. Her persona and the emotions that she conveys give the appearance of being absolutely genuine - an effect actors generally have to work very hard to achieve.

An ensemble effort like this always has to reflect credit on the director. To allow actors to develop mutual respect, to give them room and trust enough to work together in their own creative moments, and to be able to blend the performances - and help the actors blend the performances - so that the whole story, as shaped and changed by the editing process takes a meaningful, consistent, emotionally-resonant shape is a daunting task, and one that Dayton and Faris accomplish with far more feel for a sustained narrative than their background might have led one to expect. They have done a fine job here, at a cinematic task with a high degree of difficulty.

And Arndt's script is very well-written. For a first-time screenwriter, he shows a flair for understated comedy and a willingness to make room for visual and non-verbal business that even many veterans find it hard to develop. Although there are some difficult lines and scenes - which if delivered by a less talented cast with less talented direction might have taken the film over into the bathetic and the downright embarrassing - the ensemble gets to the heart of the story and manages to make it work.

The production values are typical of the indie-low-budget film-making tradition. But that is not a bad thing. More polished, "Hollywood" production might have spoiled the sense of immediacy, of improvisation, of rawness that is an important part of what makes the film work. The cinematography, by Tim Suhrstedt, gets a lot of bang out of a few bucks by interesting and versatile camera placements that bring the camera very close to the action, and make it very active.

The locations and settings selected are not overburdened with detail, but they do the job of fixing the sense of place effectively - especially many of the shots of the travelling sequences, which give a strong sense of the contours of the "wide-open spaces," the paradox of their promise and their emptiness. The music is a delightful potpourri of evocative pop-culture touchstones, from a painful rendition of "America The Beautiful" to a series of "indie-rock" originals and even a remix of Rick James' "Supefreak." It's a strange collection, but in the context, it works well.

Little Miss Sunshine has a lot of black comedy, rough language and references to sex and drugs that earned it an R- rating, but even so it ultimately comes across as a sweet, amusing, honest and touching film. It is an "adult comedy" in every good sense of that term and if you have been largely disappointed by the predictability, commercial pandering and emptiness of most of this summer's films, you will find its quirky but genuine sensibility a valuable antidote to Blockbuster sterility.

That's my take on it. What's yours?