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With: Abigail Breslin, Steve Carell, Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano
Written by: Michael Arndt
Directed by: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
MPAA Rating: R for language, some sex and drug content
Running Time: 101
Date: 01/20/2006

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

3 Stars (out of 4)

'Miss' Scores a Hit

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's not often that high concept movies align themselves with intelligent writing and deft casting; usually the high concept alone ("There's a bomb on a bus...") is enough to sell a movie. But here we have Little Miss Sunshine, which might aptly be described as "dysfunctional family hits the road," or in other words: National Lampoon's Vacation meets The Squid and the Whale.

First time writer Michael Arndt and husband-and-wife directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (makers of music videos by R.E.M., Janet Jackson, Smashing Pumpkins, etc.) carefully craft their neurotic family members from the get-go. Steve Carrell (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) starts things off right as Frank, the country's #1 Proust scholar, who fell for a male grad student and tried to kill himself when the student ran off with the country's #2 Proust scholar.

His sister, Sheryl (Toni Collette), assumes responsibility for him, and brings him home to one of her bucket-of-chicken/bottle-of-soda dinners. Sheryl's husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) has invented a nine-step program that has yet to set the world on fire. Their son Dwayne (Paul Dano), inspired by Nietzsche, has adopted a hatred for mankind and taken a vow of silence.

Grandpa (Alan Arkin) is the loose cannon of the group, the one whose curmudgeonly, vulgar behavior lets the stifling air out of the room. Indeed, Arkin's contribution is so singular and important that his absence tips the movie's balance too far into the tense and neurotic; the air just keeps getting thicker.

And then there's imperturbable, bespectacled little Olive (Abigail Breslin), who has made runner-up in the title contest. For reasons too complex to go into, the entire family must drive, not fly, from Albuquerque to Southern California.

Due to some inexplicable grace or luck, the directors manage to turn broad, creaky road-movie jokes -- the family's VW van won't shift into first, so they must make a pushing/running start after each stop -- into sublime giggles.

Even the predictable climax turns into something unusually, refreshingly creepy as the beauty competition emerges as a freak show, with little darlings turned into makeup-slathered drag hags. In this way, and even through its prolonged and slightly-too-obvious climax, the movie manages to question the nature and need for competition in America.

The movie's real triumph, however, is Arkin's winning performance. His last Oscar nomination came all the way back in 1968 (for The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter), and he deserves some overdue recognition. It's one of those truly savory moments that remind us what's great about the movies.

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