A Chubby Little Ray of Sunshine
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The patriarch of the Hoover family in “Little Miss Sunshine” is almost as obsessed with winning as he seems unequipped to win at anything. Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker who has developed a nine-step program for success. He is intent on selling this strategy and making millions through book sales even though he seems to have precious little first-hand experience with success. And while the motley crew that he helms may not subscribe to his program, they do succeed in teaching him a few things.
When Richard’s 7-year-old daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) is chosen to compete in the finals of a beauty pageant, Richard and his family take a road trip from Albuquerque, N.M., to accompany her to the competition in Redondo Beach, Calif.
Stuffed into the family’s Volkswagen van is Richard’s overworked wife Sheryl (Toni Collette); their Nietzsche-obsessed son Dwayne (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence until he enters the Air Force Academy, Richard’s obscenity-obsessed father (Alan Arkin), recently thrown out of his retirement home on account of his drug abuse; and Sheryl’s brother Frank, a suicidal Proust scholar (Steve Carell).
What follows is a tender and nuanced portrait, penned by first-time screenwriter Michael Arndt, of a family of individuals in crisis. Out of some sense of devotion to Olive and some necessity, the entire family embarks on the road trip.
Although the basic plotline is alarmingly close to a family vacation film starring Chevy Chase, the impressive cast keeps the first half of the film memorably sharp and funny. Mr. Dano is forced to communicate through pen and paper, but his efforts make Dwayne a determined but unsettled adolescent. Ms. Collette once again finds the beauty in a haggard but striving character, while Messrs. Kinnear and Arkin maintain the heart of characters who could easily devolve into burlesque. And Mr. Carell’s depressive professor is an excellent turn for the comedian. His wide eyed stare and broken down demeanor capture the essence of someone saved from the brink who isn’t sure he’s ready to be back.
But even these intelligent characters and a soundtrack dappled with Sufjan Stevens cannot always overcome some of the antics that eclipse the film as it moves forward.A Volkswagen van that needs to be pushed to start and often can’t be stopped provides a surprising amount of humor, but fun with dead bodies is almost always a tired gag (even if it does provide a moment for Richard to instruct everyone to “just pretend to be normal.”)
The real find in the film, however, comes in the smallest package. Ms. Breslin has stolen moments in films like “Raising Helen,” “Keane,” and “Signs,” but here she runs away with the whole thing.
The success of the film depends on the slight actress’s ability to convince the audience of both her emotions and the effect they have on the adults around her. She wholly succeeds at both. Olive has a sweet demeanor, awkward dressing habits, and what appear to be the free plastic lenses that healthcare companies have inflicted on generations of badly sighted children. If Ms. Breslin had played the part with even a bit of saccharine sentimentality, many trivial set pieces would have been laid bare.
A few years on, Olive might be a tragic figure who doesn’t understand her limitations; but at seven she provides a heartfelt foundation for her family.The unspoken truth for much of the film is that this awkward, bespectacled girl would be out of place in a beauty pageant, and once the Hoovers arrive at the competition, that is most certainly the case.The cute, round belly and wide-eyed stare that make Olive so pleasant an addition to every scene she’s in is out of place amid the various suntanned and lacquered JonBenet Ramseys with whom she is supposed to compete.
Once again the family unites to prove the moral of the film — that winning isn’t everything, and in fact, that losing is what makes life interesting. The final scenes, which bring the family together to support and protect Olive, have touching moments, but they also betray the conceit on which the film has hinged.Though they are not always successful, each family member does his or her best to protect Olive’s innocence. In truth, she is already protected by her inability to understand the seedy corruption of the pageant, but the effort is redemptive for the whole family.
One of Olive’s family members affects her chances in the pageant, but more importantly, threatens to burst that bubble of innocence when her actions are received poorly. This doesn’t happen, and the family rejoices in a bonding, high-energy moment. Nevertheless, we know that Olive’s childhood innocence is fleeting, and that if the family doesn’t get its act together (and perhaps even if it does), it will soon be gone.