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Little Miss Sunshine has a precocious kid with giant glasses, Steve Carell, and a name cloying enough to hurt your teeth—and it’s also depressing as hell. The plot is simple—a family drives from New Mexico to California so their young daughter can participate in a beauty pageant. But the topics that pop up along the way are not: Drug addiction, bankruptcy, death, divorce, suicide, and squelched dreams figure in the debut of co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and scripter Michael Arndt. It’s hard to imagine a sadder journey. Especially one that simultaneously makes you laugh.
The Hoover family is already barely keeping it together before they load themselves into a VW bus and head for the titular pageant. Sheryl (Toni Collette) hurriedly throws fast food on the table for dinner and has just taken it upon herself to care for her suicidal brother, Frank (Carell), after he leaves the hospital with bandaged wrists. According to doctor’s orders, Frank, a Proust scholar who lost his boyfriend, his job, and then his apartment, must never be left alone and therefore shares a room with Sheryl’s brooding teenage son, Dwayne (Paul Dano). Dwayne wants to become a pilot—and, influenced by Nietzsche, has taken a vow of silence that’s thus far lasted nine months. There’s Richard (Greg Kinnear), Sheryl’s worse half, who is desperately trying to brand his self-help program on being a “winner” when, in fact, his ideas of victory and positive thinking make him a reprehensible human being. Richard’s foul-mouthed dad (Alan Arkin) also lives in the Hoover home, having been kicked out of a retirement facility for snorting heroin.
And, of course, there’s little Olive (Abigail Breslin, whom you might have seen in Raising Helen but will more likely remember from Signs). Olive’s 7, obsessed with beauty pageants—she watches them on video and mimics those crowned—and, despite her gap tooth and potbelly, finds out that she is now eligible to compete to be a Little Miss Sunshine because of a more scheming girl’s disqualification. Amid all the chaos, she might have never found out: The fried-bucket repast quickly abates as Frank’s “accident” is discussed, Dwayne writes in his notebook that he hates everybody, Grandpa bitches that every day they eat “goddamn fucking chicken,” Richard becomes increasingly uncomfortable and insulting, and Sheryl tries not to jump out a window. Then Richard casually mentions a message about little-miss-something. Olive runs from the hellish meal to the answering machine of her potential salvation—and Breslin’s pogoing, then squinting, then screaming Olive briefly illuminates the screen with a moment of pure joy.
But Richard’s got this thing this weekend, Sheryl can’t drive a stick, they can’t afford to fly, and leaving Grandpa, Frank, and Dwayne the run of the house is clearly a bad idea. As Olive runs herself into a tizzy, the adults again deflate. Then Richard gets down to look Olive in the eye and ask if she’s sure she can win; her affirmative response is all he needs to agree to pack the herd into the bus and drive them to California.
Surely, everyone knows how these road trips go. The label on this potentially tired setup, in blinking neon, is “family dysfunction.” And, yes, with its juggling of jokiness and despair, some of this Sundance hit may seem familiar—think Napoleon Dynamite, only with more than one joke. (Ignore, however, the “Where’s Olive?” tag line, which suggests the film is Home Alone 12.) But even with its occasional notes of wackiness—a broken clutch means they have to push the bus to start it and then scramble to jump on, for instance—Little Miss Sunshine’s script so deftly captures the emotion behind each setback that it’s less like a sitcom than like a clan’s real day-to-day life squashed into 101 minutes. It’s a testament to what getting forced out of your own routine and head can do—sitting in a hospital, say, would have never brought the smile to Frank’s face that a successful clutch-popping attempt does. (“No one gets left behind!” the professor triumphantly declares.)
The cast is uniformly excellent, from Arkin’s gruff grandfather ranting breathlessly on topics such as his studliness at the old folks’ home (“I had second degree burns on my johnson!”) and doing drugs (“I’m old!”) to the role Kinnear was born to play: a smug, khaki-shorts-wearing know-it-all who abhorrently points out to Olive that beauty queens probably don’t eat ice cream and that “Uncle Frank gave up on himself, and that’s something that winners never do.” As the deadline for the pageant check-in nears, everybody is so drained from their personal and collective issues that all focus touchingly turns toward fulfilling Olive’s naive dream—and then debating whether to shield her from it when they see all the creepy JonBenets with their expensive costumes and years-honed talents. The moral of the story comes from Dwayne, who, no longer silent, realizes that his dad’s emphasis on always winning will screw you up but good: “Fuck beauty contests. Life is one fucking beauty contest after another.”
A child in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is also influenced by a dubiously go-get-’em father: “If you ain’t first, you’re last,” Reese Bobby tells his son, Ricky, who was born in a speeding car. He shares this wisdom when he gets kicked out of Ricky’s school on Career Day, after years of absence. And then he disappears on Ricky again.
It doesn’t take long for Talladega Nights to get the stereotypes of its target out of the way: Ricky’s car is sponsored by Wonder Bread, his family eats a buffet of fast food every night, Skynyrd’s king, foreigners are weird, etc. The subject’s a softball, but Ferrell’s vaguely Dubya-accented shtick makes it work for a while, whether Ricky is timidly giving his first on-the-track interview (the way his hands gravitate toward his face even though the interviewer instructs him to put them down) or later brashly making commercials for any and all products (“I’m Ricky Bobby, and if you don’t chew Big Red, then fuck you”). Among the broadness are a couple of subtler jokes, such as Ricky’s answer to the question of why his rival, the French Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Ali G), came here: “Public schools? The health-care system?” But mostly, it’s all beer and balls.
A long segment in which Ricky loses his touch lags, saved only by the 40-Year-Old Virgin’s Jane Lynch as Ricky’s mother and Junebug’s Amy Adams, once again proving she can deliver mouthsful of dialogue with ardent and impressive speed, as Susan, Ricky’s manager and eventual love interest. Unlike Anchorman, these blander moments suffer from a lack of cameos from the usual Ferrell clan of Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Steve Carell (though perhaps “I love lamp” isn’t the kind of dumbness they were going for here). After descending from full-on laughs to forced giggles, however, Ferrell and McKay successfully resuscitate the audience with never-fail outtakes that should leave you happier than a celebration dinner at Applebee’s.CP