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It is ironic that the same week that Little Miss Sunshine went into wide release, the Jon Benet Ramsay case exploded back onto the front pages. The Ramsay case reminds you just how creepy these beauty pageants for little girls really are. Little Miss Sunshine tells the story of a little girl named Olive (Abigail Breslin) who has qualified to compete in one of these creepy beauty pageants. Somehow, her dysfunctional family must get their act together so that they can drive her across country in time for the pageant. Her family consists of her divorced, stressed-out mother (Toni Collette), loser, step-father (Greg Kinnear), coke-sniffing grandfather (Alan Arkin), silent, Nietzsche-reading older brother (Paul Dano) and suicidal, Proust-expert uncle (Steve Carell). Olive is not creepy at all and seems like a normal little girl. She practices her talent routine in secret in her grandfather's room. Her uncle comes to live with the family after an unsuccessful suicide attempt brought on by being passed over for a McArthur grant. He has to share a room with Olive's teenage brother who has not spoken a word for nine months. Grandpa disappears regularly to the bathroom to snort some coke and step-dad is motivational speaker trying to stay out of bankruptcy.
This is another film by first-time co-directors and a writer who are telling a story ripped straight from the Indie Film Playbook. This means it's a story about a quirky group of people, down on their luck, who need to take a long road trip. Little Miss Sunshine is a comedy about death, bankruptcy and suicide. And mostly it works as a comedy. There are lots of funny scenes, particularly those with Steve Carell and Paul Dano. Carell is a very funny suicide survivor, and Dano gets in quite a bit of character development even though he is mute for most of the movie. And watching Alan Arkin is always a joy. He is amazing. He's 72 years old and acts like he's 22. Arkin has some great scenes with Breslin who is very good as the young girl. Even though she is not quite 10 years old, she already has several movies under her belt including Signs and Raising Helen. Collette is good as always but she gets stuck with too many worried mother roles (e.g., The Sixth Sense, About a Boy). Kinnear does the best he can with the worst role in the movie, that of a one-dimensional failure of a motivational speaker.
Where Little Miss Sunshine lets down is in the narrative flow. This may be due to the fact that the directors (and spouses in real life), Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have previously directed only music videos. The individual scenes in Little Miss Sunshine are often good and funny, but after the 10th scene about getting the family's VW bus started, you just wish they would get there already. Then, the final scenes of the movie at the creepy beauty pageant are a bit of a downer. You can't really believe that Olive actually qualified for the pageant since she is so obviously out of place. And then it's all so creepy that you want to wince rather than laugh. The simplistic moral of Little Miss Sunshine, that we are all winners, is hammered home mercilessly from the first scene to the last.