LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE won Alan Arkin an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, as well as one for freshman screenwriter Michael Arndt’s shrewdly crafted script. Made for $8,000,000, the pint-sized Sundance favorite, directed by the husband/wife team Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris as their debut feature film, took five years to get off the ground, but when it ultimately flew in 2006 the 101-minute dysfunctional-family comedy-drama struck gold with delighted audiences as well as mostly disarmed critics, earning $100,500,000. Other Oscar nominations ensued for Best Picture (edging its wee way into the roster of serious dramas) and for the 10-year-old bundle of talent Abigail Breslin, up for Supporting Actress as the title charmer.
Sweet and inquisitive ‘Olive Hoover’ (Breslin) gets picked to strut her stuff in a child’s beauty pageant in Redondo Beach, California. Getting there from Albuquerque requires a problematic family road trip in their problematic VW bus. Aphorism-dropping, Type-A Dad (Greg Kinnear) wants to launch himself as a motivational speaker. Heroin-tooting Grandpa (Arkin) has no trouble speaking, foul-mouthed. Quietly sarcastic scholar Uncle Frank (Steve Carell) is on suicide watch. Disgusted teenager Dwayne (Paul Dana) is fully quiet, having taken a vow of silence. Frazzled Mom (Toni Collette) tries valiantly for a semblance of sanity. They all have or had dreams; Olive is the only one not yet damaged by them.
Breslin’s nomination followed a long string of awards, prompting the 73-year-old veteran Arkin—whose Academy prize went for playing her honest and crusty grandpa— to offer, with good-humored concern ” I hope she loses, frankly. No, I’m serious. I am not joking. What, next year she is going to get the Nobel Prize? It’s enough. She has had enough attention. I love her and I love her family, and I feel enough is enough. She is a kid, she needs to have a childhood.”
Common sense advice, and she didn’t win (Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls), yet the Abbie genie was out of the box. Auspiciously debuting at 6 in Signs, Breslin’s astonishing instinctive openness and sincerity (as well as being cute as the proverbial button) revealed, with the possible exception of contemporary Dakota Fanning, the most likable, naturally gifted child actor of the day. She gets extra credit for having the professional pluck and lack of ego to wear a padded ‘fat suit’ to make Olive appear plump compared to the other ‘fit’ contestants.
Of course it helped that the director’s didn’t let her character overawe or overstay welcome among the perfectly attuned adults in the cast, and that the chuckle-rich script, though it may follow unavoidably in the template track laid by many other Face-Life indie romps, doesn’t allow quirkiness to dominate the characters (ala Juno)–the excellent acting keeps their gallant foolishness true, touching and very funny. It also does a deft, askance, but not snidely cruel job of poking a stick at the questionable absurdity of those garish kids-parading-as-adults follies: anyway, it’s not about the contest (thank God).
Kinnear and Colette are, as in everything I’ve ever seen either do, disarmingly natural . They work all the time and yet it seems like they never fully get the credit they deserve. Dano’s stress-fractured brother, since he has little dialogue, carries it with just his suppressed yet revealing visage. He was 22 (playing 15) and would break big a year later in There Will Be Blood. Carell showed here that he held as much skill at drama as he’d proven in comedy—an early hint at what he’d later deliver in Foxcatcher and The Big Short. Arkin (always good) has fun, though my feeling is the Academy gave him his statue more for his long career than this particular gig (fellow nominees Jackie Earle Haley for Little Children or Djimon Hounsou in Blood Diamond each had better parts and did more with them). There’s affection as well as skill at work; no one ‘plays down’ to their character. A superb ensemble effort, a swell audience picture, a rewarding good time.
Michael Danna and Devotchka provide just enough soundtrack to accent. With Bryan Cranston, Dean Norris, Beth Grant, Paula Newsome and Julio Oscar Mechoso. Matt Winston dead-on nails the horrid pageant MC.