Little Miss Sunshine ostensibly belongs to the film sub-genre “squirm-inducing comedy.” The laughs in such movies are usually at the expense of characters behaving badly – without their reliably inept decisions the story doesn’t move. The twist here is that instead of digging themselves deeper, LMS’s characters make choices that redeem them – the situations might arise because of what they have been, but these damaged people find room to grow and move on. The distinction is at the heart of LMS’s appeal – the story is too contrived for a straight drama and the direction is too slack for effective comedy. In any case, if the squirms aren’t necessarily arrived at honestly they are resolved in ways both satisfying and well outside the Hollywood norm.
Curiously, for a film that celebrates the outsider (each major character is some variation on what society might consider a “loser”), the filmmakers’ compassion doesn’t extend beyond the sad-sack dysfunctional family at its core. While the audience is meant to recognize that the climactic beauty pageant is grotesque in its celebration of mainstream beauty, it seems like a missed opportunity when the other contestants and their families are portrayed as merely idiots – isn’t the point actually that very few of us have our priorities in the right order? Similar moments are hinted at elsewhere, such as the bureaucratic hospital official who insists on a full round of paperwork, the motorcycle cop who leers at dirty magazines, and the rival Proust scholar and his young boy toy headed out for a romantic getaway; these characters are as recognizably lost as the main ones, but they are treated as less worthy of redemption. Because they are used merely as props, the movie’s compassion suffers and some of the built-up audience goodwill is sacrificed.
Despite minor complaints, LMS works as a celebration of life. Credit for this must be given largely to the actors. Toni Collette has many wonderful moments that are rare in the movies – even as she is trying to keep her family together, she is on the verge of coming unhinged. Her face registers surprisingly obvious battles between compassion, anger and despair. Greg Kinnear also gives a strong performance that might have been one-dimensional without a sense of the desperation behind his idiot bravado. His “awakening” during the beauty pageant is well played and poignant because the actor makes the process transparent and believable – his redemption is well earned, and the moment when he joins his daughter onstage in her hilariously inappropriate dance is wonderfully satisfying. Alan Arkin’s line readings are hilarious and they add zing to every scene he’s in. Steve Carell gives his performance almost entirely with his eyes, and while his character’s transformation isn’t explicitly stated it’s still evident and more powerful because it is not forced on the viewer. Abigail Breslin holds the heart of the movie with her naiveté and enthusiasm; although the filmmakers come dangerously close to victimizing her in the same way her character is almost victimized at the beauty pageant (there are uncomfortable moments as she is forced to look at the skinny, obscenely made up girls and wonder if she doesn’t measure up – the actress plays these bravely and as well as can be expected, but the protective audience is irritated at the directors for making her do it.) It’s never clear why the character continues to compete in beauty pageants in the first place (it seems that she would have recognized how false they were after a single competition, and the pageant depicted in the movie is a finals event of some kind); it’s also unclear if she experiences any revelations on par with the rest of the characters. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to imagine the movie without her sunny presence to offset the rest of the gloom.