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Dysfunction basks in the 'Sunshine'

'Little Miss Sunshine,' a road-trip comedy, falls just short of perfect.

By Peter RainerFilm critic of The Christian Science Monitor / July 28, 2006



'Little Miss Sunshine" is a prime example of a dysfunctional-family comedy that also doubles as a road movie. Even the vehicle of transport is dysfunctional.

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The Hoovers pack their dilapidated VW bus and drive from Albuquerque, N.M., to Redondo Beach, Calif., where 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) is entered in a preteen beauty pageant. Olive is far and away the sanest Hoover, which isn't saying much. Their family name is apt – their combined neuroses vacuum up everything in sight.

Along for the ride are Olive's father, Richard (Greg Kinnear), a motivational speaker in khaki shorts who has had no luck selling his nine-step program for success; her perpetually exasperated mother, Sheryl (Toni Collette); and uncle Frank (Steve Carell), a gay Proust scholar who has recently tried to end it all. Rounding out the circus are her zombie brother, Dwayne (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence until he gets into the Air Force Academy, and her porn-loving, heroin-shooting grandpa (Alan Arkin).

The husband-and-wife directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, known for their work in rock videos, don't miss a beat. Michael Arndt's screenplay has something going on almost every minute, and the directors keep everything humming, as if boredom was a cardinal sin. They have set out to make an audience film that hits home with all audiences – young and old – and judging from the reception the movie received at Sundance, where it sold for a record $10.5 million, they may well succeed.

And in truth there is much to enjoy here, starting with the performances. Kinnear has a lightweight presence but shows surprising pathos as the motivational guru who can't motivate anybody. Carell, with his short, bristly beard and no-blink stare, is so pretentious that he seems to levitate on his own hot air. Arkin, one of my favorite actors, is a raunchy antidote to all those sweet codgers in the movies who go gently into that good night.

The film's major drawback – the reason it falls just short of terrific – is that all the family situations are contrived for maximum dysfunctionality. This gets wearying after a while. The basic formula here isn't all that different from one of those Chevy Chase National Lampoon movies, and sometimes the humor, potty and otherwise, isn't on a much higher level, either.

When the film tries to be Capra-esque, it's even ickier: Having set up the Hoovers as a gaggle of nutbrains, the directors proceed to tutor us in the virtue of family togetherness. You see, deep down these battlers really love each other. Blood is thicker than shtick. Dayton and Faris satirize our win-win culture, but they don't miss a trick promoting "Little Miss Sunshine" for the winner's circle. Grade: B+

Rated R for language, some sex, and drug content.

Sex/Nudity: 5 scense of innuendo and frank talk about sex; 2 scenes with porn magazine covers. Violence: 3 mild scenes. Profanity: 58 expressions, mostly strong. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 2 scenes with smoking, 3 scenes with heroin use.

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