They come in different varieties - big, small, fractured, strict, mushy, nuclear, joint -but the one thing always glues them together is that they are family. Blood is thicker than water and relatives are always fighting to prove it, goes an old adage. Little Miss Sunshine, arguably amongst the funniest movies of the year, stresses exactly that point with delicious wit.
Olive (Abigail Breslin) is chosen to participate in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in California and the family is left with no option but to drive down from Albuquerque to California in their old VW mini bus. On board are a really obnoxious father (Richard - Greg Kinnear), a high strung mother (Sheryl - the wonderful Toni Collette), a heroin snorting grandfather (Alan Arkin, in his Oscar winning role), a suicidal uncle (Frank - Steve Carrel from The Office) and aspiring pilot brother (Dwayne - Paul Dano).
At first sight, it seems like family can't get any more dysfunctional than the Hoovers. When little Olive orders some ice cream, Richard reminds her that none of the beauty queens are fat. Olive pushes the ice cream away with great longing. Grandpa steps in and starts eating it with great relish. Soon the entire family (excluding Richard) follows suit till Olive steps in to grab her share. The first glimpse of the real love and affection behind the hysteria.
The road is fraught with disaster - the clutch fails and the family invents a really hilarious way of starting the VW, Frank sees his life's achievement (he was the #1 scholar in Proust!) slip away from him, Richard goes bankrupt after his book deal falls through, Dwayne finds out that he cannot fly because he is colourblind and sadly, grandpa overdoses on heroin. The family makes it to the pageant against all odds, which includes stealing grandpa's body from the hospital. When Olive's routine turns out to be a striptease to everybody's horror (choreographed by none other than grandpa!), the family unites for a final stand!
I cannot remember the last time I nearly fell out of the seat laughing. This is not the first movie about a family on a road trip, nor is it literary genius brought to the screen. What works for the movie is that it stays strongly connected to its heart, without trying to make any pronouncements. The Hoovers are a deeply flawed lot, a bunch of losers waddling through their mucky lives. But even as we laugh at them for being such klutzes, we are touched by their humanity.
The movie's cast works amazing well for the storyline. Greg Kinnear, who has been wasted after that silly Oscar nomination, is brilliant here. Here, he gets rid of the As Good As It Gets sweetness and is nothing short of a nightmare as the goal crazy father. Toni Collette is so good that she could have done this in her sleep. I'd like to see her in roles that less deserving Hollywood A-listers usually get! Alan Arkin as the sardonic paterfamilias is a scream - I loved the scene where he gives Dwayne advice on sex and drugs, hilarious! Was kinda disappointed that his character died at halftime. Steve Carell as the depressed uncle Frank is a revelation. Who'd have thought that this guy could act so well in non-Office roles? Paul Dano brings a brand new twist to the troubled teenager - he doesn't talk for most part of the movie but its amazing how much he can convey without saying a word! And when he does talk, his voice breaks out like a fresh mountain stream. Great choice!
But reserve all applause for Abigail Breslin - she is delightful in ways words cannot describe. Her Olive is the glue that holds this family together. I came away astonished at how well one little girl could act. She is a natural in front of the camera, and not once do we get an impression that she's been taught how to act. When her family sends her down to her upset brother, she walks down with baby-girlie steps down the field and puts her head on his shoulder. Made me go - awwww! I wont see Dream Girls, but this little girl will be the true winner for me, even if the Academy thought it fit to give the Oscar to someone else!
Verdict - Delightful!