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Little Miss Sunshine

(2006) *** 1/2 R
101 min. Fox Searchlight Pictures. Directors: Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton. Cast: Steve Carell, Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano.

The ultimate generation-gap comedy, Little Miss Sunshine pits a sunshiny seven-year-old against her gloomy familial elders, burnt-out depressives ranging from teenage to senior citizen. In the film's opening moments, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris flip through the rolodex of characters: father Richard (Greg Kinnear), the mediocre motivational speaker with the nine-step "Refuse to Lose" program; determinedly protective mother Sheryl (Toni Collette); suicidal Proust scholar Uncle Frank (Steve Carell); the Grandpa (Alan Arkin) whose heroin-snorting got him booted from a rest home; Nietsche-reading, willfully mute son Dwayne (Paul Dano); and that peppy daughter, Olive (Abigail Breslin), who lives to compete in kiddie beauty pageants.

Screenwriter Michael Arndt proceeds to a lengthy and richly funny dinner scene, which Dayton and Faris referee with patient attention. Here, the characters and premise take shape. Richard's prone to barely veiled intimations that everyone around him—and certainly not himself—is a loser, especially the haggard, wrist-bandaged Uncle Frank. Grandpa is recklessly profane, one of his only remaining pleasures (the other is coaching Olive for her talent competitions). Lanky Dwayne is all coiled adolescent anger, expressed in violently scribbled epigrams like "I hate everyone." Nevertheless, when Sheryl becomes backed against the wall, she enlists the whole family to pile in a VW bus and accompany Olive to her latest competition. After all, none of these people can be trusted to be home alone.

The humor is in the details, finessed by a crack cast. The credible characters endure a slow thaw, gradually relaxing enough to enjoy even their pain, and Dayton and Faris subtly highlight each emotional beat. Carell blanches when he sees the room he'll be sharing with the teen nephew who'll be conducting his suicide watch, but their mutual mirror of depression quickly makes the two grudgingly simpatico (Frank says, "You don't speak because of Friedrich Nietzsche. Far out"), even as they reveal each other's glaring flaws. Grandpa's crankiness is mostly cosmetic; with the philosophical attitude of a man who knows he's in his twilight years; he just doesn't give a fuck, and indirectly tries to convince his family to take up a bit of his ease.

Above all, Dayton and Faris—emergent from the land of music videos and commercials—prove they know funny, whether it's as simple as Olive serving Frank Sprite in a Mayor McCheese glass or as elaborate as the whole family pushing the bus into gear as Frank cracks, "I just want everyone to know that I am the preeminent Proust scholar in the United States." A pleasantly offbeat, horn-inflected score by Mychael Danna and DeVotchKa helps, as does an experienced supporting cast that includes Wallace Langham, Bryan Cranston, Matt Winston, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and Paula Newsome, particularly hilarious as a "bereavement liaison" met on the road.

Thematically, Little Miss Sunshine dabbles. We get the barely functional dynamic of the post-nuclear family tugging in all directions but inextricably bound. We get an examination of the win-at-all-costs American attitude, so often misguided but invaluable when lovingly applied. We even get a dab of Proustian perspective. Olive proves more damaged by her father's binary understanding of "winners and losers" than the grotesque beauty standards of beauty pageants, though the latter point gets made all the same, first in a roadstop-diner discussion about fat and later in the accurate presentation of a child pageant. The first instance betrays a pattern on the part of Olive's priggish dad (holding back tears, Olive later confesses, "I don't want to be a loser"); the latter instance gives Dad his shot at redemption.

Emotional crisis after emotional crisis primes the pump for an eventual burst of feel-good energy, but Dayton and Faris properly insist that it be hard-earned (the one unforgiveable misstep: a hugely unlikely chance meeting in an Arizona gas-station mini-mart). Mawkish moments are dutifully undercut with dark humor, but the directors know a cake is meant to be eaten and not just had. Little Miss Sunshine works over an audience like gangbusters, and though it's transparently manipulative, it also pulls off the trick of the feel-good movie in a way movies haven't managed in a long time. I had forgotten how long it had been since a movie so skillfully jerked laughs and tears. Do yourself the favor of giving yourself over to its summer-y charms.

[For Groucho's interview with Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, click here.]

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Aspect ratios: 2.4:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio

Street date: 2/3/2009

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Fox's Blu-ray debut of Little Miss Sunshine is a ray of light for the format and for the film's fans. There's a significant upgrade to the DVD image: the Blu-ray is sharper and yet more film-like. Colors are accurate: the yellow VW bus and cloud-streaked blue skies have never looked lovelier. Audio is a highly effective DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix that can be considered definitive.

All of the DVD bonus features are preserved here, beginning with Director's Commentary by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and Screenwriter's Commentary by Michael Arndt with Dayton and Faris. The film underwent an interesting professional and creative journey from conception to final product, ably recounted on these two tracks; the first focuses on production a bit more, while the latter focuses more on script, character and the writer's lengthy collaboration with the directors.

You'll also find the goofy outtake "Do You Wanna Talk?" (1:17, SD) and a number of gems in a selection of "Deleted Scenes" (7:53, HD), which come with optional commentary by Dayton and Faris. Four "Alternate Endings" (5:09, SD) also come with optional commentary by Dayton and Faris; it's fascinating to hear the thinking and stumbling on the way to the film's final ending.

"On the Road with the Hoovers: The Making of Little Miss Sunshine" (18:30, SD) includes rehearsal and behind-the-scenes production footage, as well as interviews with Greg Kinnear, Abigail Breslin, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Dayton & Faris, executive producer Jeb Brody, and producers Marc Turtletaub, Ron Yerxa, Albert Berger, David T. Friendly, and Peter Saraf.

"'We're Gonna Make It...': A Session with Mychael Danna and DeVotchKa" (2:52, SD) is a montage of moments from a scoring session and film clips.

"Who Are the Hoovers?" (17:15, SD) explores the family members one by one, with comments from Dayton & Faris, Kinnear, Collette, Arkin, Dano, Saraf, Brody, Turtletaub, Carell, Breslin, Berger, Yerxa, and Friendly.

"No One Gets Left Behind: The Music of Little Miss Sunshine" (10:13, SD) is a concise look at the collaboration of Dayton & Faris, DeVotchKa and Mychael Danna; all of the above are interviewed, and Saraf also chimes in.

Fox isn't done: they also pack in thirteen entertaining "Webisodes" (25:29, SD), a Poster Gallery, "'Till the End of Time' Performed by DeVotchKa from the Little Miss Sunshine Soundtrack" (4:00, SD) and a "Soundtrack Spot" (:32, SD). This beloved comedy rolls on in a Blu-ray that fans will have a hard time resisting.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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