“Where’s Olive?” is the tagline for Little Miss Sunshine. It works on a number of levels, one being a scene (I’m not spoiling anything, it’s in the trailer) in which she’s left behind at a gas station. Interesting because she’s the reason they’re on this road trip. Another being Olive’s roll in life; where does she fit in in her family and in the world? What the film makes clear from the opening shot is that she is certainly not the Little Miss Sunshine the inciting incident suggests. Thank God!
Olive (Abigail Breslin) is a young beauty queen wannabe. She lands a spot in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, which leads her family to California. Tragedy and hilarity ensue.
Richard (Greg Kinnear), Olive’s father, is trying to publish a book that essentially divides the world into winners and losers with no grey area. His father (Alan Arkin, who’s simply credited at “Grandpa”) is a crude cocaine addict who narrowly dodges clichés in every scene he steals. Olive’s brother Dwayne (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence until he joins the air force. As we meet him he hasn’t spoken in 473 days. Uncle Frank (Steve Carell) is a gay Proust scholar who has recently survived a suicide attempt and can’t be left alone. Finally, Sheryl (Toni Collette) is the mother/sister/wife/daughter-in-law who has to hold all these eccentric personalities from eating each other.
Writer Michael Arndt cleverly avoids clichés, which is difficult when nearly every character is idiosyncratic nearly to his or her detriment. Each one of these silly folks is just human enough that we cannot simply right them off as caricatures. For example, Richard, though not technically an antagonist, is not a particularly likable guy when we meet him, but when he falls into hard times on the road we feel for him. It’s clear that he really does want the best for his family, though we question the way he goes about it.
The end, as you’ve probably seen or heard, is a little nuts, but the metaphor is intact. They leave the pageant a big happy family, and we can safely assume that the familial spats will flair up again by the time they get home. Or back to the freeway.
Sunshine has been called “heartwarming” (no pun intended) by many critics, and though I’d like to disagree as I find the term to be a cop-out, I can’t help but agree completely. And if you’re prone to such descriptions, it made me feel all fuzzy inside.
The DVD has two commentaries, one with screenwriter Michael Arndt and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, one without Arndt. Both commentaries have a good combination of “remember that day on set when this funny thing happened?” and “this is what we were going for with this scene/shot/bit of dialogue etc.” There’s also a balanced share of back patting and humility.
DeVotchka’s music video “Till The End of Time” also makes an appearance on the DVD. Why not Sufjan Stevens, I wonder.
Finally, there are four alternate endings, all with commentary, all of which you’ll be glad didn’t make the final cut.