Little Miss Sunshine

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(Scene from the film).

Every now and then, along comes an independent flick which slowly builds an audience via word-of-mouth rather than enjoying its biggest box-office return right off the bat. This was the case with My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a sleeper which confounded the critics by gradually grossing over a quarter billion dollars in spite of so-so reviews and an opening weekend take of less than a million.

This year, we have another example of this phenomenon in Little Miss Sunshine, a remarkable road comedy revolving around one of the most comical assemblages of dysfunctional screen characters in recent memory. The story centers on the desperate, cross-desert caravan of the Hoover clan to drive from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach in time for 7 year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) to represent the state of New Mexico in the Little Miss Sunshine Beauty Pageant.

The storyline has shades of Robin Williams’ RV, since Olive’s father, Richard (Greg Kinnear) has a work-related reason to embark on the adventure, though that is where the similarities start an end with that relatively funereal bomb. Rah-rah Richard, an overbearing optimist deep in denial, has written a nine-step self-help book and is eager for word from his agent as to whether or not it is going to be published.

By contrast, his wife Sheryl’s (Toni Collette) practicality comes in handy while dealing with him and the rest of their troubled, intergenerational family. There’s irascible grandpa (Alan Arkin), who they had to take-in after he was kicked out of his retirement community for snorting heroin. Then there’s gay Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), who was just recently released from a mental institution after slitting his wrists over unrequited love. The couple’s 15 year-old son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), is a miserable misanthrope who has taken a vow of silence till he becomes a pilot, and chubby Olive seems a tad too unpolished in pageant p’s & q’s to compete against girls groomed for the title.

Nonetheless, this motley crew piles inside the cramped quarters of an unreliable VW bus to embark on one very eventful, if bittersweet sojourn to Southern California. Along the way, these endearing oddballs actually manage to win you over while keeping the laughs coming with their kooky behavior. Despite the never-ending deluge of calamities, the Hoovers persevere, arriving just in time for Olive to take to the stage, for a tearjerker of a show-stopping finale. A wonderful, wonderful message movie, warts-an-all.

Excellent (4 stars).  Rated R for sex, expletives, and drug use. Running time: 101 minutes.  Studio: Fox Searchlight

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