What movie do you think is perfect? For me, it’s Little Miss Sunshine and the point of this post is to discuss the reasons why. I’m admittedly biased, since I first watched LMS in college. Then watched it repeatedly with friends until it became THE MOVIE that defined my college experience. Nostalgia is a powerful drug and is a huge part of why I love LMS. But–in my best attempt to unbiasedly evaluate LMS–I re-watched the movie and was reminded of the many film-critic-worthy reasons this movie is perfect. The top three are:
(1) It has a perfect cast. Much like Arrested Development or Parks and Rec, LMS filled every major role with under-recognized or budding stars who would later become household names: Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Toni Collette, Abigail Breslin, Alan Arkin, Greg Kinnear. Discontent to only have dope actors in primary roles, LMS filled its secondary cameos with the likes of Bryan Cranston, Mel Rodriguez, and Mary Lynn Rajskub. That’s top-to-bottom acting perfection. Try to guess which actor/actress won an Oscar for their performance here.
(2) It has a perfect soundtrack. LMS went all-in on its indie vibe, establishing a pervasive mood by having DeVotchKa compose almost the entire soundtrack . The movie opens with a DeVotchKa piece that uses new movements to introduce each main character. Such subtle musical perfection continues throughout LMS until the “musical mood” is broken with supreme comedic effect when Breslin performs her beauty pageant dance routine at the end of the movie.
(3) It has perfect comedy. Not only is there never an unfunny moment in LMS–but the comedy draws on so many styles. There’s uncomfortable, dark, crude, deadpan, and hyperbolic humor along with lots of sight gags. None more iconic than the Hoover family running alongside their broken Volkswagen van to get it to start. The breadth and diversity of jokes in LMS is amazing.
This list could easily keep going (here’s 10 more reasons). But I’ll use some self discipline and transition to reviewing the movie.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Directed by husband-wife duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Farris, LMS opens by introducing a very dysfunctional Hoover family through a montage depicting each character as a “loser trying to be a winner.” Seven-year-old Abigail Breslin, the movie’s heart, fervently watches old Miss America tapes and dreams of being a future contestant. Her Type-A father, Greg Kinnear, teaches 9-Step Refuse-to-Lose inspirational seminars to mostly empty audiences. Her brother Paul Dano does rigorous home workouts and keeps a code of silence as he trains for the air force. Her grandfather Alan Arkin snorts heroin in the bathroom when he’s not helping with her dance routine. Her mother, Toni Collette smokes to alleviate tension while retrieving uncle Steve Carell from the hospital after his suicide attempt. Within 4 minutes each character’s passions & problems are laid bare followed by this perfect title card:
Tensions are immediately on display as the Hoover family gathers for a dinner of fried chicken and Sprite. Kinnear so fully embraces his “you’re either a loser or a winner” mantra that he applies it to daily life. Kinnear pressures his agent (Bryan Cranston) via repeated voicemails to secure a book deal. Kinnear praises Dano’s winning behavior because he has a goal he’s working towards. Kinnear considers Carell to be a loser because he literally gave up on life. Finally, Kinnear can’t decide about Breslin. He’ll support her dream of competing in beauty pageants only if she believes she can win. Everyone else, it’s clear over dinner, is exasperated with Kinnear.
So how do you resolve these family tensions? With the following three-step program: (1) Breslin gets a call she’s earned a spot in the pre-teen beauty pageant “Little Miss Sunshine;” (2) she emits the best on-screen squeal of all-time; and (3) the family crams into a yellow Volkswagen van to drive from their home in New Mexico to the pageant in California. Over the course of the ensuing road trip, each family member meets his/her demon as the van itself breaks down to become a metaphor for the family discord:
About those family demons. At the first stop for gas, Kinnear calls Cranston who finally answers his phone only to kill the book deal. Kinnear will later borrow a scooter–another excellent sight gag–to make a side trip to confront Cranston. Inside the gas station, Carell literally faces the reason for his attempted suicide: his ex-lover’s new boyfriend. As the trip continues, Arkin’s heroin habit catches up to him and he dies from overdose. The family continues their trip (with Arkin’s body in the trunk), only for Dano to discover he’s colorblind thus dashing his air force aspirations. Dano’s exceptional acting as he finally breaks his silence to break down can’t be overstated. Thank goodness Collette has no personal demons, because she’s the glue holding this family together.
This is a lot of heavy stuff. But as the characters hit personal lows, they (1) learn to find their value outside a worldly definition of winning and (2) come together by rallying around Breslin. Except for Arkin; he’s dead. To keep it light for the viewer, the movie’s stuffed with humor. Pick your favorite scene. I laugh the third-hardest at the uncomfortable humor of the diner scene wherein Kinnear shames Breslin for ordering ice cream. I laugh the second-hardest at the police stop scene wherein a police officer pulls the van over, opens the trunk, but is distracted from Arkin’s body by dirty magazines. I laugh the hardest at Breslin’s final dance routine.
About that ending. The family makes it to the beauty pageant in the nick of time. Kinnear and Dano are quickly appalled at the objectifying nature of the event and worry that chubby, innocent Breslin will lose to the other slim, hyper-sexualized pre-teen girls. They beg Collette to pull Breslin; she doesn’t; and Breslin performs the routine she practiced with Arkin. I’ll only partially ruin this moment below–but suffice to say it’s a perfect summation of all the characters’ arcs and a “screw you” send off to beauty pageants everywhere. (If you’re curious about my thoughts on beauty pageants, I wrote at greater length in my previous post).
An Insufferable Inspirational Speaker
I intentionally saved one of Greg’s best performances for last in my Year(s) with Kinnear. Make no mistake: Greg’s performance in LMS is Premier Kinnear. He’s energized and dialed in for this role, exhibiting a broad acting range and redemptive wrinkle to his oft-narcissistic characters. In the early, aforementioned table scenes at family dinner and a restaurant pit stop, Greg establishes himself as a truly insufferable family patriarch. He’s passionate and persistent as he peddles his Refuse-to-Lose product to unresponsive audiences and Cranston’s voicemail. But this attitude translates to rigid expectations and emotional disconnect on the home front when opining on family drama. This is particularly pointed in his “teaching moments” with Breslin when he tells her (A) they won’t make the trip to California unless she thinks she can win and (B) beauty pageant contestants don’t eat ice cream to stay slim. Greg clearly believes people make daily choices to be winners, but as he lectures his family to do the same it induces rolled eyes and marital rifts.
However–because Greg thoroughly embraces his “don’t be a loser” BS–he truly believes he has his family’s best interests at heart. This character wrinkle marks a difference from his many other self–focussed characters who are narcissistic to the core. It also makes the redemptive character arc that follows more possible.
The ensuing redemptive road trip is where Greg flexes his diverse acting muscles. First, he gets mad. After learning his book deal is dead he shouts-it-out with Collette (Greg’s always great at yelling) then macho-man style confronts Cranston. It’s in these moments Greg realizes his product is dead. Second, Greg gets sad. In the hospital after his father (Arkin) dies, Greg’s demeanor reflects a stunned sadness. It’s in this moment Greg realizes life is short and inherently valuable–and his mantra is dead. Third, Greg gets gusto. With newfound determination to get Breslin to the pageant, he smuggles his dead dad out of the hospital and hits the road. Fourth, Greg gets nervous. He quite visibly squirms in his skin as he’s certain the cop who pulled him over will see Arkin’s body. Finally, Greg gets supportive. *Spoiler* As the audience laughs at Breslin’s performance, Greg starts clapping before joining his daughter on stage for an all out dance fest. It’s in this moment Greg finally becomes a supportive father and redefines winning.
What range. Two questions remain. First, is this Greg’s best dad role? Yes, absolutely. While Greg’s often stereotyped as a movie dad, he’s usually a very crummy one. Not cloning one’s son or promoting one’s son’s later-recanted visions of heaven are low bars to clear. He does that easily here–becoming the best-dressed and most-supportive movie dad. Second, is this Greg’s most premier performance? I’ve been stingy with the “Premier Kinnear” label, applying it only to Little Miss Sunshine, Nurse Betty and As Good As It Gets. Nurse Betty is narcissistic Greg at his best, but probably his Least-Premier Premier-Kinnear. Little Miss Sunshine and As Good As It Gets feature expansive but vastly different Greg Kinnear performances. I can’t choose one, so these two tie for Most-Premier Premier-Kinnear.
That said, here is the LMS Kinnear Meter rating which is also the last of my Year With Kinnear:
With no more movies to review, I could leave you with this perfect post on a perfect movie. But–mostly for my sake–I need to write a project recap. We don’t need to say goodbye just yet as you can expect that next!
All names, trademarks, and images are copyright their respective owners.