If further proof that so-called ‘independent cinema’ has become a formulaic exercise in style and a mere marketing tag was needed, the hit comedy Little Miss Sunshine provides plenty of it. The biggest distribution deal to take place at the Sundance festival, where it was snapped by Fox for a cool US$10.5 million dollar deal, this crowd-pleasing, middle-to-low-brow family road movie is to independent, art cinema what retail chain Gap is to counterculture: a simulacrum.
What saves this disingenuous underdog comedy from the brink is its cast, who occasionally succeeds to shine through the thick layers of contrivances and improbable plot twists that pervade the narrative. Toni ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ Colette plays Sheryl, the worn-out mother of the Hoovers, a blue-collar New Mexico family. Her husband Richard (Greg Kinnear, previously seen in As Good As It Gets) is having trouble at selling his nine-steps-to-success programme (how ironic!). To make things worse, she has to look after her gay brother Frank, a Proust academic who tried to commit suicide after losing the throne as ‘the most eminent Proust scholar in the U.S.A’ to a rival who also stole his younger boyfriend. Carell, it must be said, was a casting coup: his bookish European good looks and understated comic style add a smart air to the film. He’s definitely a rising star, especially since the success of The 40 Year-Old Virgin.
The rest of the family is made of the Nietsche-reading teenager Dwayne (Paul L.I.E. Dano)(the Nietsche reference coming across as clichéd) who has been locked in a silence vow for the last nine months, Olive (Abigail Breslin}, the Little Miss Sunshine of the title who miraculously gets invited to the finals of a beauty pageant in California, the ignition of the family’s adventure on the road and, finally, there’s Alan Arkin’s hedonist, leather-jacketed grandpapa, surely a very embarrassing role for an actor of his ilk. Grandpa’s function is to take drugs and endlessly talk about sex, a cause of chagrin to the all-American Richard. His ‘shocking behaviour’ gets tiresome very quickly.
While on the road, which is most of the film, we are given a diagnosis of ‘contemporary’ America: the obsession with diets and the obesity issue, the dark side of the not-so-inclusive American Dream, American competitiveness, in short, a menu of formulaic indie themes. And the pageant sequence, the moment the whole film trudges towards, is a messy disappointment. The films uses it as the catalyst for the Hoovers’ self-realisation, the culmination of the bonding experience achieved by a couple of days on the road together. But this is only achieved because they regain a certain degree of self-esteem by contrasting themselves against the ‘American freaks’ found in the universe of beauty pageants, an overused stereotype that has lost its power as social comment.
There are moments of genuine humour (like the VW bus’s horn getting stuck in a continuous beep) and the cinematography is quite often easy on the eyes, revelling on the visual potential of motorways and yellow objects (at least I noticed quite a few yellow elements throughout the film…). But there’s an undercurrent of charlatanism and a hypocritical sense of realism about Little Miss Sunshine that leaves an unpleasant dust on its trail.
Little Miss Sunshine is released in the UK on 08/09/06.