Overview: A dysfunctional family goes on a cross-country road trip after their youngest daughter, the sole optimistic innocent in a group of dejected and cantankerous characters, is granted entry into a beauty pageant for pre-teen girls. 2006; Fox Searchlight Pictures; Rated R; 101 minutes.
The New Normal: Before Modern Family was lazily reconstructing our image of what constitutes the American nuclear unit, the Michael Arndt-penned and Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris-directed Little Miss Sunshine was challenging gender dynamics and parental guidance protocols previously established by the likes of The Brady Bunch. In Arndt’s script, humor derives from his American family’s inability to see one another for themselves, their egos getting in the way of the compassion and self-sacrifice necessary for familial bonding. Whether it be in Paul Dano’s self-imposed isolation or Greg Kinnear’s faux-motivational rhetoric ensconced in self-sensationalism, each member of the Hoover clan is likewise engaged in a pursuit of normalcy articulated by the forces of society at large. Beauty and success are determined by a mainstream with which the Hoovers prove ironically incongruous.
American Beauties: In its indictment of popular conceptions of beauty, Little Miss Sunshine is predictably satirical. Abigail Breslin’s attempt at the title of Little Miss Sunshine in a beauty competition for young girls is effectively cringe-worthy, her ultimate victory found in her exuberant enthusiasm and self-assuredness. Likewise, the film’s supporting cast of characters find inner contentment in accepting their own shortcomings, and learning how to love themselves regardless. Summarily, the film is possessed of an individuality in narrative tone and thematic construction, its convolutions of plot effectively whimsical, if a little too emotionally manipulative. Dayton and Faris prove a little too slight as first time directors, precious and precocious to a fault.
Idiosyncratically Route: Coasting on its twee status as a part of the independent film movement of the 2000’s, Arndt, Dayton, and Faris similarly skate by on the feel good nature of their film’s politically safe engagement with the socially queer. Accordingly, the Hoovers are odd in an incredibly premeditated way; the antics they find themselves involved in are painfully routine, and humor arises from the socially comfortable as opposed to the culturally disorienting. In the script’s allusions to such iconoclasts as Friedrich Nietzsche and Marcel Proust, Arndt attempts to situate his characters within the circles of a literary intelligentsia ostensibly familiar. Arndt’s misanthropes are dissatisfying in their capitulations to the formative beliefs of pre-existent independent thinkers rather than letting their own freak flags fly. While a lot of the social commentary which Dayton and Faris are able to generate through the composition of individual scenes and sequences is admittedly well designed, the surrounding film is painfully normalizing to more popular conceptions of countercultural oddity. The Hoover clan is about as innocuously non-conforming as someone who prefers alternative rock to pop radio hits.
Overall: Little Miss Sunshine is a film that at times appears to have more content than its script ever actually provides, the Hoover family having more in common with The Brady Bunch than any one of the more socially unconventional and ethnically diverse nuclear units depicted in the equally conformist situation comedy Modern Family. Little Miss Sunshine’s single saving grace comes from the inherent warmth lent by a cast striving to transcend the material, a task for which they prove remarkably capable.