Little Miss Sunshine (2006): Sundance Fest Highlight, Best Picture Oscar Nominee

“Little Miss Sunshine,” the first hit of the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, world-premiered last night to standing ovation, resulting in a fierce bidding war among distributors.

Obviously, the concept of dysfunctional family has not been exhausted in American films (Hollywood and indies) as is manifest in Little Miss Sunshine, a likable picture with the potential of becoming breakthrough hit beyond the indie milieu, like last year’s Sundance hit, “Hustle & Flow.”

Though it appears to be original and idiosyncratic on the surface, “Little Miss Sunshine” is really a genre comedy that combines elements of the dysfunctional family film with those of the road comedy; the van (dys)functions as one of the central characters.

The feature directorial debut of renowned music video directors (and husband-and-wife team) Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, this farcical comedy is for the most part sharply written by Michael Arndt.

It’s unusual these days to see an American film about an extended family, but one of the positive and innovative aspects of “Little Miss Sunshine” is that it embraces a three-generational family, affording each one of its six members a fully-developed role, with an arch, ups-and-downs, and some kind of reconciliation after experiencing inner and outer struggles. The movie “handles” in egalitarian way the various crises of the Hoover family, though there may be too many of them for one comedy.

The film tells the story of the Hoover family over a crowded three-day span, as its members journey from their home in Albuquerque, New Mexico to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in Redondo Beach, California, to fulfill the deepest wish of seven-year-old Olive, an ordinary-looking little girl with big glasses and equally big dreams.

It takes one reel to discover the driving force behind the comedy, namely, that each member of the clan nurses personal dreams–and heartbreaks when the dreams crush. Significantly, each member is a victim of the American Dream of upward mobility and monetary success. As a result, at the end of the journey, each individual has to come to terms with a new, more compromised version of his/her reality.

The comedy’s main target is that uniquely American notion of winning, the whole philosophy of dividing the human race into winners and losers. In the course of the journey, various definitions of winning are contested, defeated, reevaluated and redefined.

For the weak patriarch, Richard (Greg Kinnear, in top form), “there’s no sense in entering a contest, if you don’t think you’re gonna win.” Based on this perverse definition, he mercilessly challenged his daughter Olive, “So you think you can win Little Miss Sunshine” The petrified, nearly frozen girl, is hesitant for a second before giving her affirmative response, “yes.” In contrast, for the raunchy Grandpa (a terrific Alan Arkin), “a real loser isn’t someone who doesnt win. A real loser is someone so afraid of not winning they don’t even try.”

The Hoovers are meant to be a typical middle-class suburban clan. Father Richard wishes to become the next world-famous self-help guru, with a new “Nine Steps” plan of How to Win in Life. However, he can’t get beyond his own insecurities and failures. Bound for a comeuppance, Richard is losing his control and masculinity; you don’t have to be a Freudian psychologist to observe the analogies between the broken van and Richard.

Mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) is a divorcee whose main function is to try and keep her new family together, despite near-impossible odds. When the film begins, Sheryl goes to the hospital to release her brother Frank (a wonderful Steve Carell, of “The Office” fame). A renowned Proust scholar, Frank is recovering from a botched suicide attempt, a cry for attention after a romantic rejection of his handsome graduate student, who opted for the amour of Frank’s academic competitor, who later on wins laurels for his latest book. Like Richard’s, Frank’s body and soul have been shattered. It’s the job of the journey to restore some semblance of order and self-esteem to both men.

Sheryl brings Frank home, forcing her son Dwayne (Paul Dano) to share his room with his uncle and make sure that Frank doesn’t attempt another suicide. An alienated teen, who’s obsessed with getting into the Air Force Academy, Dwayne has taken an extended vow of silence. Claiming that, “I hate everyone,” he has reduced his life to the minimum communication possible; when necessary, he’ll scratch down a few words in writing, or signal a brief gesture, to a question.

Also in residence is the curmudgeon, sexually obsessed Grandpa, who says exactly what’s on his mind, regardless of the company. Grandpa is forced to live with his son Richard, after being kicked out of a nursing home due to his drug habit; in the first scene, he’s seen snorting cocaine.

What precipitates the family into “action” is a “bomb” dropped on them, when Olive is asked, unbeknownst to them and at the worst time in their life, to participate in the Little Miss Sunshine contest in Redondo Beach. Despite great odds, the family agrees to bring Olive to California to perform in the highly competitive girls’ talent show and beauty pageant. The Hoovers perceive Olive’s trip as their salvation, something like seeking the Holy Grail.

Under time pressures and tremendous anxieties, Olive and her family have two days to travel over a thousand miles in a cantankerous VW bus, which keeps breaking at the worst possible moments (a joke repeated too many times). As the Hoovers travel through the American Southwest, they encounter a series of obstacles, both dramatic and comedic.

In the first half, the film maintains a balance between comedy and drama, but then it deteriorates into a broad farce that undermines the very logic of the comedy.

Pushing too hard, Arndt’s script is marred by a number of strategic mistakes. For example, there’s a highly contrived scene in which Frank meets his ex-lover and his competitor scholar out of the blue, in the middle of nowhere, at a gas station.

The scene in which the son realizes that he’s not fit for aviation career is also overbaked. And in what’s the film’s weakest scene, a policeman stops the Hoovers and then lets them go for a reason that can’t be revealed here, but rings utterly false.

The picture’ third reel suffers from repetition of ideas and images, but fortunately, once the family lands at Redondo Beach, it regains its steam. The sequence depicting the beauty contest is truly American Gothic; the young contestants look like freaks, monsters who’re neither girls nor women. It’s here that the Hoovers wake up from their fantasy world–and the tale delivers its moral lesson.

Despite the aforementioned weaknesses, for a first effort, the film is remarkable in the naturalness of the dialogue and unpredictability of most of the situations along the road. “Little Miss Sunshine” represents an honorable addition to the genre of dysfunctional family comedy in general and the beauty pageant in particular.