Seven-year-old Olive Hoover is the only person in her small extended family with any joie de vivre. You could conclude, cynically, that life simply hasn’t had a chance to beat her down the way it has her harried mother, desperate father, seething brother, suicidal uncle and combative grandfather, but that kind of darkness is exactly what Little Miss Sunshine gently pushes away. One only has to take a look at sweet little Olive’s name to figure out what she represents.
Yet despite the fact that the heroine’s name is an exhortation and the moral of the story comes via Proust (really), Little Miss Sunshine is sweetly understated, never preachy or saccharine. The cast is simply too talented to let the movie become cloying.
The premise might be contrived — in a fluke, adorably awkward Olive qualifies for the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, and the entire family must pile into a battered VW bus for a road trip to the event — but the actors never wink at it. They respect their characters and take the Hoover family’s problems seriously, so we care about what happens to them. The silliness is always secondary to the Hoovers’ humanity.
Each of the six central actors in Little Miss Sunshine is worth mentioning. Playing Olive is the unselfconscious Abigail Breslin, who has the down-to-earth, real-kid vibe that Dakota Fanning used to possess before she became preternaturally grown-up and creepy. Alan Arkin plays her grandfather with gruff aplomb, relishing his character’s more outrageous lines but never losing sight of the man’s true affection for his family.
Toni Collette portrays Olive’s mother, Sheryl. Superb as always, she and Steve Carell — playing against type as Sheryl’s depressed brother, Frank — have some truly lovely moments together. In one scene, they exchange a fleeting conspiratorial look as Frank baits Sheryl’s uptight husband, Richard (Greg Kinnear), and that single glance reveals decades of history and a bond that has survived the divergence in the siblings’ lives.
Kinnear has the thankless task of playing the least endearing, least sympathetic character in the movie. If he’d taken the easy road and made Richard more of a villain, his character actually might have been more palatable, ironically, but Kinnear insists on Richard’s humanity, and by the end of the film, he even has taught us to like Richard, at least a little bit. Paul Dano has few lines as Dwayne, the Hoovers’ angry, sullen teenage son who has retreated into himself so profoundly that he refuses to speak, but Dano creates a silent storm of adolescent angst in his pale, pained face.
There’s actually a great deal of pain in Little Miss Sunshine, but that pain is tempered with generous humor and charm. It isn’t always a laugh-out-loud movie (though it has its moments), but it’s so vibrant that the smiles it inspires warm you in a way that the giggles provoked by emptier comedies do not.
The climax of the movie features a wickedly funny critique of the way pageants often sexualize little girls, but husband-and-wife directorial team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are ultimately much less interested in that than they are in the journey the Hoovers have taken. Their camera lingers not on the dismayed faces of the pageants moms and girls but on the Hoovers’ faces, beaming nervously but genuinely, some one them for the first time in the film.
The best visual, though, is the final manifestation of Little Miss Sunshine’s running visual gag: the Hoovers pushing their VW bus to get it started and then running and leaping in the door while it’s moving. Initially, it’s just slapstick, but by the final scene, Dayton and Faris have quietly elevated it to metaphor. The family members run and leap, pulling each other up and laughing together. You can’t help but laugh along with them. Olive’s joie de vivre just might have rubbed off.