In a strange way, Little Miss Sunshine is the film that The Royal Tenenbaums could have been. Both movies focus on extended families who are dysfunctional to a comic extreme. But while the rich but unhappy family in Wes Anderson’s film often just seemed annoyingly arch, little Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) and her thoroughly middle-class Albuquerque household are sympathetic, full-blooded characters.
Olive is an ordinary but unconquerably optimistic girl with a fascination for beauty contests. She harbors dreams of winning the upcoming Little Miss Sunshine pageant. Her father, Richard (Greg Kinnear) is an oppressively affirmative self-help guru who is hanging most of the family’s financial hopes on a book deal. In addition to these money worries, her mother, Sheryl (Toni Collette), is dealing with the attempted suicide by her brother, Frank (Steve Carell), a gay English scholar. Unable to be left alone, Frank is rooming with Oliver’s brother, Dwayne (Paul Dano), a Nietzsche-obsessed teenager who refuses to speak until he becomes a test pilot. She’s actually closest to her grandfather (Alan Arkin), who has recently been evicted from a retirement home for snorting heroin.
When Olive is notified that she’s a replacement finalist in the Little Miss Sunshine competition, she has two days to get from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, California. Because neither Frank nor the grandfather can be left alone, the entire family ultimately piles into their VW Microbus, which quickly proves somewhat inadequate to the task of getting them 800 miles to California. A bad clutch and a rebellious horn, however, turn out to be the least of their worries.
Despite the attention received by young Miss Breslin and Oscar-winner Arkin, this film contains several other equally strong performances. Shooting this before his breakout roles in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and NBC’s The Office, Steve Carell is very effective as the suicidal Frank, who often seems like the most level-headed member of the family.
The praise heaped up the tiny shoulders of Abigail Breslin is completely deserved. She gives a remarkably natural performance, free of the artificial “tiny-adult” qualities often found in movie children. Olive becomes the emotional glue that ultimately keeps this family from completely going off the rails and this young actress serves notice that Dakota Fanning is not the only pre-adolescent who can play with the big girls and boys.
Alan Arkin brings a manic energy to the irrepressibly profane grandfather, who spends much of his time on screen saying exactly (and I mean exactly) what is on his mind. Despite his foul language and drug use, he also shows real tenderness toward his granddaughter and often seems like the only adult who pays her any real attention.
This is another one of those films that, in lesser hands, who have been depressingly precious and cloying but manages to keep its feet on the ground with the help of sharply drawn characters played by a highly talented cast.