The Doc and I got our movie-watching New Year off to a good start with "Little Miss Sunshine" the other night. I missed the end of the Boise State-Oklahoma game but after nearly two weeks of nonstop Wizards-Colonials-Ravens-Terps-BCS-Star Wars-Harry Potter, something had to give, and I had wanted to see this movie anyway. Besides the only college football game that matters is next week, not that any of them matter that much anyway.
But back to the movie. As always, first some context. As I said, this one arrived with high expectations despite a title that evoked memories of a high school musical production of "Little Mary Sunshine," a campy stage adaptation of the Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald vehicle, in which I played a Canadian Mountie. It's neither a painful nor pleasant memory and probably irrelevant, but, hey it's my blog.
The concept - motley misfits hit the road, learn about life and themselves - is not original, but the fully realized characters, excellent performances, and just enough twists in the plot make watching "LMS" the equivalent of ordering a good meal at a fine restaurant: a tasty melange of potent flavors, with some pleasant surprises only hinted at in the menu, and over in less than two hours (a quality hard to find in so many of today's seat-numbingly long epics).
Every member of the cast, from the main ensemble to the fringe, delivers believability, emotion and humor. As a friend of mine said, you could imagine any of the main characters as the star of their own movie. Greg Kinnear as the overmatched, would-be self-improvement maven is both hateable for his criticism of his chubby daughter's diet choices and lovable for his determined and undignified pursuit of her happiness. Alan Arkin, the most charismatic onscreen heroin addict since Diana Ross as Billie Holiday, jolts the story with hilarious rants throughout. Steve Carell shines in the awkward situations, his cinematic trademark. And while it's hard to believe that Toni Collette was ever enough of a movie babe to have been cast as Princess Diana, she perfectly embodies the role of a working mother trying to encourage her entire family in their dreams even as the burdens threaten to overwhelm her. Paul Dano's character holds to a vow of silence for a good bit of the film, but he still portrays teenage angst with humor without getting maudlin. And finally, Abigail Breslin, as the pageant contestant that drives the whole plot, captures you with her charm, her love for her family, and her absolute commitment to her art in the uproarious conclusion.
The child beauty pageant industry comes in for a thorough skewering and stomping from directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and writer Michael Arndt. It's funny and horrifying at the same time, and sadly believable. This is only the second feature they have directed, coming out of the music video backgorund, and the first script from Arndt. I'd keep an eye out for their future efforts, solo or collaborative.