By Jeff Walsh
Little Miss Sunshine walks a fine line for the duration of the movie. It always seems in danger of being too self-conscious, too precious, or too cutesy, but never crosses the line where you stop being pulled into its world.
The movie follows the old warhorse of plots, the road movie, but somehow pulls it off. The premise is that a family has to drive from New Mexico to California for their youngest daughter Olive to compete in a beauty pageant she entered when visiting relatives in California. Olive's father (Greg Kinnear) is trying to sell his motivational book, "Refuse to Lose." Her grandfather (Alan Arkin) taught her the dance routine, and curses like a sailor. Her brother (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence until he enters the Air Force Academy and only communicates to the family with hand gestures, facial gestures and, when all else fails, writing things down on a notebook. Olive's mother (Toni Collette) is just trying to keep this oddball assortment of a family together.
Steve Carell plays Olive's uncle, a gay Proust scholar who is with the family on the road trip because he needs to be watched after recently attempting suicide when his boyfriend left him for another Proust scholar.
The movie is filled with quirky characters doing quirky things (even the car refuses to get into gear for much of the trip, which causes a running gag of the family having to push it and, one at a time, running to jump into the car as it gets started). Other movies of this oddball nature, like the family of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, with its Windex-spraying father, can become cloying and just seem to have been given quirks for the sake of it being a "quirky movie." Little Miss Sunshine dances dangerously close to that line, but never crosses it.
The big moment of the film is when they finally arrive at the contest, and watch the daughter perform (certainly the moment you're most likely to jump back to on the DVD), but I was really surprised with Carell in this movie. Compared to most of the screen work such as Anchorman, where he ends up speaking in tongues on the set, or his television work such as The Office or his years on The Daily Show, Carell really dials it down and delivers a great, nuanced performance. The gay, suicidal, Proust scholar (you can't even write that without wondering if they were trying too hard) somehow becomes a real person, despite the over-the-top possibilities that Carell ignores to stick with character development.
The movie is a fun, joyous time and certainly delivers a movie that never falters, swerves, or cuts corners to make itself more accessible to the mainstream audience it found anyway. In a world of Napoleon Dynamites that seem to wear their quirks as the defining elements of character and plot, it is refreshing to see a movie aim high and hit the mark perfectly. It was one of the best movies I saw in theaters in 2006, and watching the DVD again was time well-spent.
The DVD features four alternate endings, although nothing overly substantial, compared to some movies where the entire movie takes a dramatic turn away from its theatrical version. The two commentaries, one from the two married directors, and another where they are joined by the writer, give a good view into the world of filmmaking. It is also refreshing to hear people still love their creation so much, rather than nitpicking it and pointing out how they wish they could have come up with a better solution here or there, which is another annoying commentary staple. The writer had a lot of interesting things to say about how each character had internal, external, and philosophical goals throughout the course of the movie.
Little Miss Sunshine, out now on DVD, is a road trip worth taking.