“Little Miss Sunshine’s” prestige has only fortified over the past 13 years. Our love for these oddball, Albuquerque eccentrics has never dwindled, our angst over extraneous KFC family dinners is as rigid as ever. Every cinematic imitation of “Sunshine’s” quirky sixsome has fallen flat, every movie vagabond roadtrip fueled less by unoriginal, unleaded fuel. “Sunshine” wasn’t the first great indie, but it was directly responsible for crafting a love of movies that felt indie, an admiration for higher quality films that feel like they couldn’t have originated within the strict confines of the studio system.
To understand “Little Miss Sunshine’s” appeal, we must flash back to the paleolithic period of 2006. W is off on his even more beleaguered second term as president. Cell phones are still used primarily for communication and not distraction. And while Steve Carrell would become the comedic talent-du-jour shortly after “Little Miss Sunshine’s” release, the greatest star power then sparkling from “Sunshine” was “As Good As It Get’s” Greg Kinnear.
It was a misfit cast bringing the screenplay from Ferris Bueller’s former assistant to life, directed by a duo less known for features and more for Target and Volkswagen adverts. The “Sunshine” crew weren’t united by inexperience but more by lack of recognition, a talented slew of artists and creators whose hearts ached for a chance to tell a great story, getting their big break was secondary. Appropriately enough, “Sunshine’s” story follows a girl yearning for that big break of her own.
Abigail Breslin plays Olive Hoover, an earnest, energetic young tyke whom you’d be reluctant to let watch the nightly news because you wouldn’t want any gruesome tidbits about the Iraq War or Hurricane Katrina to damper her upbeat perception of the world. Her clothes are clearly of the thrift variety, her oversized glasses obviously a discount buy from the Costco clearance rack. She’s poor, but still young enough to be unaware of her family’s economic plight.
The same can’t be said for the rest of Olive’s family. Her dad Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a struggling do-it-yourselfer, trying to sell a 9-point improvement seminar that’s even below the dull standards of Cutco knives. Her mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) is a tortured matriarch who’s only release is the cigarettes she can sneak away from her husband on long drives to Albertson’s. Dwayne, her near-Goth brother played by Paul Dano, entered his existential crisis a decade or so too soon, overly-consumed with the readings of Nietzche that he’s taken his own vow of silence. Her academic uncle Frank (Steve Carrell), recently failed to commit suicide after his grad student fell in love with a less-talented Proust scholar. And then there’s Grandpa Edwin (Alan Arkin), the elderly miscreant with a frat boy mentality whose main priorities are keeping Olive happy and ogling over Tripled-D centerfolds in gas station porn rags.
With the exception of Olive, none of those residing in the Hoover household actually like each other. But when Olive earns a spot in a California girl’s beauty pageant, the somberly six opt to temporarily put their differences in the rear-view mirror in favor of helping Olive achieve her dreams. Packed in a sputtering, banana-colored van, their road trip from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach should only take 12 hours. But mechanical problems with their jalopy, the sudden death of Edwin, and a tragic realization of Dwayne’s color-blindness derail the easy-going adventure. When the Hoovers finally arrive at the pageant, greeted by spray-tanned 7-year-olds with thousand-dollar hair-do’s, they realize Olive probably isn’t cut out for this. But, the family triumphs over their domestic tribulations, helping Olive realize that even if she is a loner among this beautiful bunch, she’s far from alone.
It’s a seemingly, simple story penned with a masterstroke, a movie that denounces any claim from film scholars that script bears more importance than casting. Never do we find ourselves questioning the emotional veracity of Frank’s dreadfully awkward encounter with pre-suicide attempt faces, nor Sheryl’s internal dilemma between finding the money to feed a thankless family vs. remaining steadfast to her failing husband. Every character in “Little Miss Sunshine” has a conversation with each other at some point, every one of them explicitly stating who they are as a character, what is troubling them, and what they really want.
It also helps that “Little Miss Sunshine” is masterfully directed. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris make sure to include every Horton’s face in clear view when key dramatic moments erupt. And during the driving montage sequences, each character’s internal beauty and sense of isolation are reverberated through serenely-painted takes of the breathtaking but barren desert landscape.
Even though “Little Miss Sunshine” technically was an indie when it hit Sundance decades ago, the movie feels a far cry from the festival fare today. Thinking of a movie as an indie implies that both its subject and audience are esoteric, that it won’t achieve a mainstream popularity where anyone from Cannes to Kansas can appreciate it. “Little Miss Sunshine,” through its chance-blend of perfect casting, magnificent direction, and subtle but superior storytelling, proves there are some movies whose familial friendliness and fried chicken are palatable to the taste-makers and the status quo.