by Erin Salvi
The idea of the disfunctional family is nothing new to cinema, but it is a concept to which practically everyone who has learned to walk and talk can relate. Perhaps this is why film studios and audiences alike seem to reach no point of exhaustion with this genre of movie. While viewing these films amid an audience, one can practically hear every individual thinking, “Yes! God yes! That is my family, right there on the screen, they’ve hit it dead on! Why, why can’t a family just be normal?” This question may someday be answered, but until we do so, films exploring this topic will continue to grace the screens.
The family in “Little Miss Sunshine” is not too highly deplorable or disfunctional compared to some. The father, Richard (Greg Kinnear), is a third-rate motivational speaker who constantly attempts to impose his “nine step” program upon his reluctant family members, advising them of the importance of being “winners,” not “losers”. His well-meaning wife, Sheryl, played by Toni Collette, is a matriarch who is terrified of losing an already slippery grip on her family. Frank (Steve Carell), her suicidal brother, who also happens to be the preeminent Proust scholar in the nation, has just come to live with her family so he doesn’t reattempt worldly escape. He must room with Dwayne (Paul Dano), Richard and Sheryl’s world-loathing son, whose Nietzchean sensibilities have driven him to a vow of silence. Rounding them up is Alan Arkin’s character, a drug-addict grandfather whose idea of sage advice for his grandson is something along the lines of “you’d be crazy to snort heroin when you’re fifteen, but you’d be crazy not to when you’re old”. Perhaps the only member of the family without vice is Olive, played by Abigail Breslin. Seven-year-old Olive is “Little Miss Sunshine” herself, or so she and her family desperately hope.
Olive dreams of winning the “Little Miss Sunshine” pageant, but her entire family must somehow look past their individual issues and band together to get her there. The process is a sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic journey from New Mexico to California that the family embarks upon in a big yellow bus. Along the way, these imbalanced characters somehow reveal themselves as empathetic creatures. Beneath their hard exteriors, they are fragile, desperate souls trying their hardest to hold together the only thing that has ever provided them with any stability: family. Olive’s trek to become “Little Miss Sunshine” turns out not only to be a young girl’s dream of beauty pageant victory, but her entire family’s search for a way to become something a little greater than they are. They desire to become “winners,” but the tools they have to reach that goal have been jumbled up into the stew that is messy familial relations. “Little Miss Sunshine” verifies that the old adage is true: it is not the destination, but the journey that really counts. Cliché, perhaps, but this cliché is filled with so much inventive humor and raw familial interaction that you’ll be glad to have gone along for the ride.