This editorial contains complete and total spoilers for Little Miss Sunshine.
The Little Miss Sunshine parade has begun. Today it was nominated for a number of Independent Spirit Awards, including Best Feature and Best First Screenplay. In the next couple of weeks you’ll see more of this – the film will end up on many, many critics’ top ten lists, and it’s a lock for a nomination in the Golden Globes’ Best Musical/Comedy category. In fact, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Little Miss Sunshine taking the fifth spot in the Academy Awards’ Best Picture race.
And it’s not just the critics who like the movie – Little Miss Sunshine is a hit. While it was the most expensive purchase ever made at the Sundance Film Festival – inspiring an angry editorial from me almost a year ago – the movie has proven to be a windfall for Fox Searchlight, making almost 60 million dollars and staying in the top ten throughout much of the summer. On paper, Little Miss Sunshine isn’t the kind of movie that should be a crossover hit – it’s a “quirky” “indie” comedy, after all. So what is it that makes Little Miss Sunshine so popular?
I think I’ve narrowed it down to one thing. It’s the fact that at the end of the film no one ever says, “We all have to work together, like when we all have to push the van!” even while the film makes that point incredibly, painfully obvious. Little Miss Sunshine has managed to hit that exact target just between being a very standard, schmaltzy family movie and being something more interesting and even demanding. 90% of audiences can walk out of the movie feeling like they’ve gotten the meaning of everyone pushing the van – and they feel even smarter because the movie didn’t spell it out for them at the end.
There are other elements that make the movie work for people. The characters are one-dimensionally quirky and yet mostly played by comfortingly familiar people. Alan Arkin is great playing a cranky old man – so great that you don’t even notice that old people who curse aren’t that funny anymore, and that almost every element of his character feels forced, flat and pointless… except to be “quirky.” And you’re never worried that funnyman Steve Carrell is actually going to off himself in Paul Dano’s bedroom. Just about every other character in the film, none of whom resemble actual people you would ever meet, all feel like they’ve sprung whole from a Final Draft program.
These characters all feel like they’re from a TV show – none have heavy arcs to deal with, and you can see every aspect coming a mile away. Greg Kinnear’s character’s story is so obvious that I guessed it within seconds of his introduction. What is nice is that these slight character arcs are mostly dispatched quietly and perfunctorily in that final dance sequence. If every character in the film had a scene like Paul Dano’s embarrassing break down, the film would have lost even its basic entertainment value. As it is, that scene is one of the worst I have seen in a film since… well, since Running With Scissors, but I think that just means 2006 has been a bad year for readily apparent and cheesy catharses.
The film’s edgy qualities, which make it acceptable viewing for the hipsterati, are all slightly less sharp than anything in the depleted 18th season of The Simpsons. Little Miss Sunshine’s darkest gag, the smuggling of the grandfather’s corpse, was done twenty-three years ago in National Lampoon’s Vacation. And it was funnier, and darker, in that film. The whole premise – mocking beauty culture and the mindset of the overly-competitive – is something that sitcom characters learn about in a half hour on a regular basis. Which makes the absence of any acknowledgement of the film’s darkest, creepiest element all that much more noticeable to me:
Throughout the film the grandfather character is teaching Olive a dance routine for her beauty pageant. They’re alone together, upstairs away from the family and in a motel room, and the family never knows what it is that he’s teaching her. He’s established as a smack shooting dirty old man who wants to buy porno magazines for a family road trip, and no one thinks twice about him being alone with her. Then, at the end of the film, when Olive’s dance routine turns out to be a very sexualized stripper’s act, no one takes a second to think what the fuck grandpa was doing alone with her all those hours. But why would they – this is essentially a sitcom family, and nothing else in the story points to this being a Very Special Episode.
I don’t think Little Miss Sunshine is a bad movie. It was entertaining, and it generally featured more laughs per half hour than most of the family sitcoms on TV right now. But it’s not a great movie. This film shouldn’t make anyone’s top ten list unless they only saw nine other films this year.