“Do what you love, and fuck the rest.” – Dwayne, Little Miss Sunshine
Categorically, this is not what one would call the “feel-good movie of the summer.” After all, themes like failed marriage, attempted suicide, heroin-addiction, and imminent financial ruin don’t really fit the bill of a feel-good film. Yet Little Miss Sunshine works double-time to convince you otherwise, showing that the bright spots of the movie have to be earned through the darker defeats of its characters.
The film veritably emits a warm, amber glow, one that either relaxes or feels appropriately harsh depending on the scene. West coast scenery rolls by our misshapen band of characters, all their disjointed personas held together by little Olive. Abigail Breslin as the charming and bespectacled Olive emits a glow of her own, seemingly untouched by the chaos of her own family. They’ve united, despite their discord, for her—so that her pageant dreams can come true at the Little Miss Sunshine competition.
Throughout the film, directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton strap you into the family’s VW van and keep you unflinchingly up-close and personal with their peculiarities. Greg Kinnear as Richard is the personified definition of a loser, yet seeks glory and financial salvation through a self-help series. His wife Sheryl, played by Toni Collette, has an immense amount of love for her children and demoralized brother Frank, but waning patience for her single-minded husband.
Alan Arkin is the ornery and oftentimes inappropriate grandfather of Olive, serving as an ill-advised mentor to her leading up to the pageant. His presence as the voice of reason to his son, Richard, only makes the latter more unpopular and appear less intelligent. Grandpa Hoover usurps his own reliability as mentor, however, through his persistent use of hard drugs. Meanwhile, Steve Carell as the suicidal Frank appears unsure how he came to be a part of the chaotic road trip, yet soon finds an unlikely sense of harmony with his nephew Dwayne (Paul Dano).
Dwayne has made a vow of silence and dreams of flying jets one day. His impassive yet at times combative countenance is betrayed by moments where the camera lingers on him, face upturned against the VW’s window. A shot of the sky, intersected every so often by curving overpasses, gives an unexpected yet lovely look inside his head. These insights build a bridge to the eventual emotional upheaval later in the film, as he discovers something that will ultimately destroy his dream for good. This is a moment that feels altogether necessary, as the character greatly needed to find his voice among the rest of the group.
There are no neatly wrapped ends to Little Miss Sunshine, and no big problems such as their financial worries or Frank’s recovery are solved overnight. Instead, a gradual sense of healing, but not yet total health, is accomplished by the end. As the Hoovers jump into the van one by one, little Olive getting a helping hand up, you realize that suddenly they don’t feel so disjointed. They’ve become a family.