Twitter Plot Summary: Young Olive Hoover reaches the final of a beauty pageant, leading her family to take a cross-country trip to get her.
Five Point Summary:
1. Bit grim to open with a suicidal gay man, what what.
2. Did they really just leave her behind?
3. Is the bus going to make it?
4. That’s no way to treat the dead.
5. Let’s all dance, why not.
This is yet another of those films where I had seen a number of the spoofs but never the source material, Bad Grandpa last year being one of them. Well, no more! Little Miss Sunshine happened to show up on TV and I went out of my way to watch it. In hindsight, I’m incredibly glad that I did.
It’s one of those usual dysfunctional family capers where everybody is at each other’s throats yet they are completing the journey for the benefit of young Olive (Breslin) who has been accepted into the final of the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. The only problem is the pageant is on the other side of the country and a road trip is necessary. Adding more emotional drama to proceedings is the arrival of Steve Carell’s Frank, brother of Sheryl (Collette) who has recently tried to kill himself following a relationship that went sour. Despite this slightly tragic edge (of which there is more to follow), it never becomes maudlin or depressing. Instead this is used as a stepping stone to link emotional weight with some offbeat comedic humour, which works brilliantly.
You can see the VW van as a metaphor for the family as a whole and the journey they find themselves on. It’s rickety and liable to break down and fall apart at any moment, yet with the collective assistance of the entire family it keeps moving and doesn’t stop despite all its faults. That might be a little too on the nose for some, but it really does work. Ironically, as the van becomes more and more decrepit, the family unit is always strengthening and bonding.
There’s also Olive’s journey to take into consideration – she’s an awkward girl who doesn’t have the right body shape or outward appearance for a pageant like Little Miss Sunshine. But then it’s really about being yourself and not worrying what others think of you. It’s not about winning, it’s about taking part. By the time we get to see her dance at the pageant, a dance that has been teased throughout the film, you’re rooting for her regardless of the outcome. And, perhaps, in spite of it.
It’s a huge testament to Greg Kinnear’s performance (and, indeed, the script) that we grow to like his character as time moves on. Starting off as a brash “yes we can!” style businessman, he starts to mellow as they get closer to their endgame. This is in part pushed on following his interactions with an always-excellent Bryan Cranston, but also from the long exposure he has to his family. Without making light of the input from Toni Collette, Alan Arkin and Paul Dano, all of which have significant roles and character moments, the performance from Steve Carell is superb and completely at odds with the typical kind of comedic performance expected from him. It proves without doubt that he does have serious acting chops, for any doubters that may have considered otherwise.
The ending is quite subversive in one respect, although you can kind of tell where it’s going based solely on watching the other beauty pageant contenders and prefaced with your understanding of Olive’s relationship with her grandfather. True to form, everybody learns a valuable lesson in the end and they’re all better off as a result. Well, mostly. It’s a winner because there’s real emotional heft – Steve Carell’s character has attempted suicide, after all – but this is successfully combined with decent jokes and, eventually, a sense of gleeful anarchy.