Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Writer: Michael Arndt
Comedies about families usually come in one of two genres. Often featuring dysfunctional families (are those two words redundant?), they are either broad and goofy ("Cheaper by the Dozen") or dark and abstruse ("The Royal Tenenbaums"). Driving its Volkswagon bus down the middle of these two extremes is "Little Miss Sunshine", a comedy both inclusive and exclusive, one that some will get entirely, while others will whiff on to the same degree.
The title stems from a beauty pageant in which seven-year old Olive (Abigail Breslin of "Signs") competes. For a good portion of the film, the contest serves as a MacGuffin of sorts, putting an already odd mix of family members on the road in bizarre situations that call Vegas Vacation to mind.
But "Sunshine" is far more than the slapstick of "Vacation". It mixes humor both broad and subtle humor into a strange brew of comedy, poignancy, lessons, and life. Huge and deep issues are addressed, topics like death, dreams, and failure. Yet somehow the movie doesn't feel heavy. You'll walk out with a smile on your face because the movie sensibly touches on these issues, realizing that stuff happens and life continues, that the handling of adversity is often what defines people. And above all, there is family, which you're stuck with, for better and worse.
"Sunshine" may not grab you right away, which is part of its power. It burns slowly, introducing the family members to the viewing outsiders through observation, then putting the viewers in the bus with them as they enter a foreign world. All this is done without lapsing into melodrama and without losing steam as the movie chugs toward the climactic final scene, continuously building momentum along the way, before promptly getting out on top.
Rather crude at times, "Sunshine" is not a movie for children, nor is it for anyone who takes life or movies too seriously. But if you excel at finding the askance humor in life and film, then you will relish this offbeat look at a collection of family dynamics perhaps only slightly stranger than most, although definitely more extreme.