Wednesday, January 9, 2013

#101: Little Miss Sunshine

Codename: Superfreak


Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Type: Indie

Method of Release: 
Sundance Film Festival to Limited Release to Nationwide Release (Summer of 2006)

Greg Kinnear
Toni Colette
Abigail Breslin
Steve Carrell
Paul Dano
Alan Arkin

Notable Awards & Nominations:
Oscar- best supporting actor, Alan Arkin
Oscar- best original screenplay
Nominated for best picture & Abigail Breslin for supporting actress
Nominated for Golden Globe for best picture and Toni Collette for actress

Opinions & Comments: 

[Note: be wary of any spoilers up ahead]

I received a tip from an anonymous source that this was a movie that went on to define the independant film success story. (A few months after, I came across it on IFC on a random weekday night).

In recent years, I’ve grown to appreciate independent films. It gets you away from the burden of special effects, clichés and predictability and brings you back to the fundamentals. Most of which comes down to clever, off-the-wall writing and on-screen chemistry. It provides lesser known actors with a platform to stand on and occasionally, someone on the A-list could receive more accolades on an indie film than something with a vastly larger budget.

Throughout the movie, you get to know the individuals, but it's how the ensemble functions as a whole that is the soul of this picture. Almost everyone can relate to the "dysfunctional family" motif and given how superficial America can be (particularly in the pageant industry, the ultimate goal of this picture as the title suggests), the underdog story is just as relatable.

Abigail Breslin left her mark on Hollywood as well as the hearts of millions with the role of Olive, the avid pageant contestant who is anything but typical. Experiencing only a few seconds of doubt in the entire picture, she never backed down or feared being herself.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is her dad, played by Greg Kinnear, who continually got on my nerves (as well as everyone else in his family) because of his attitude. 
Firstly, he's a motivational speaker trying to sell people on a "9-step program" (which he brings up so many times in the first hour you could make a drinking game out of it) and inevitably, most of the families' savings went towards a book deal and promotional tour. 
Secondly, there's a scene at a diner en route to the competition where he attempts to talk Olive out of ordering ice cream because it has the potential to make you fat. His logic follows that beauty contestants do well because they're skinny and she'd be setting herself up for failure.
Thirdly, there were at least 3-4 times where something is said and he says that attitude or mindset is for losers. The mumbo-jumbo he's trying to sell is about maintaining a positive attitude, a winning positive attitude and in life, there are winners and losers and he apparently has no patience for losers.

Compartively, it's a good thing Olive has the support and confidence of his father/her grandfather, played by Alan Arkin. He coached her and helped her prepare for the competition. Sadly, he's only with us for the first half of the movie, but it's hilarious listening to him running his mouth through the course of this roadtrip from Albuquerque. Profanities fly left and right, at a gas station he asks someone to pick up some dirty magazines for him, and the wisdom he imparts to Olive's brother, Dwayne is to sleep with a lot of women.

Dwayne is played by Paul Dano, a relatively unknown actor outside of the indie circuit. He came to the Poconos sometime last year for a Q&A session about the movie "Ruby Sparks," which he co-wrote. Other than that, I know very little about him, but his movie sounds very interesting. It's about a writer and how one of his characters (see the title) comes to life.
For most of the movie, he never says a word. He took a vow of silence (inspired by German philosopher Nietzsche) until he was granted permission to train to be a fighter pilot. He gives a somewhat emo/antisocial vibe, but he shows a couple of times that he does care about his family and Olive in particular.

Even before receiving that tip or hearing much of the acclaim the movie got, I wanted to see it mainly for Steve Carrell. He had a supporting role in the Frat Pack comedy "Anchorman," the first time I saw him in anything, and after that, I predicted that he was going to be huge after that. 
Considering the circumstances in which we're introduced to his character, Uncle Frank (brother of Olive's mom), he is a very sweet, easy-going guy who occasionally has some deep things to say. 

In the beginning when we see a little bit of everybody in their individual backdrops, we find him at a hospital. After getting fired from his job, passed over for a promotion, losing a guy he had feelings for (all to the same Provost Scholar, Larry Sugarman), he tried to commit suicide. So Olive's mom, played by Toni Collette, brings him home to stay with them. Because she has him bunk out with Dwayne, the two of them establish a good chemistry where they really seem to get each other, especially after Dwayne starts talking again.

Not much can really said about Olive's mom other than the fact she's probably the most sane, gronded person in this eccentric family and she always tries her best to keep things together.

Road trip movies are great in that all the characters have to put up with one another in a small space, personalities clash and eventually, a mutual understanding is reached. Almost always, that understanding is that family comes first.

Steve Carrell begins the movie at his lowest point. This road trip helps him heal and again, with his good natured personality in this role, it's hard to believe how things started out for him. Nothing sort of lovable, as he often is in his movies.
Greg Kinnear comes a long way from debunking the loser mentality to overcoming and not caring for it anymore. His "9 steps" are ultimately a waste of family money because, according to the guy he was doing business with, nobody wanted to buy into it because he was a nobody. He probably takes the longest journey of anybody and once he gets off that soapbox of his, he shows that he's a great guy and helps bring the family together as his wife has done through most of the film in subtler ways.
Paul Dano is probably 2nd to him where he goes from hating everybody to indifference to sharing Steve Carell's belief to forego what society wants and follow his dream no matter what happens.

Additionally, road movies tend to be more about the journey than the destination itself. But it provides the audience with a counterexample to the chemistry of dysfunction. 
At the pageant, we see how the other half lives and ultimately, we're taught about convenential vs. unconventional and how unconventional is often frowned upon for being different.

Case in point: the woman in charge of the whole pagaent. What a phony!
Because with all the bumps along the way, the family almost didn't make in time to compete and she almost saw to it that they didn't. Either because the prestige of the entire production was more important than one individual or she saw they were different and was discriminatory.

There's a nice moment where Olive gets an autograph from the reigning Miss California, who was very sweet to her. Going back to the moment earlier at the diner, Olive asks if she eats ice cream and she said yes.
Other than that, we only see the other contestants and what they bring to the stage. All of which is highly superficial and manufactured.

It all ends with the talent portion and Olive is the last one to go. The codename comes into play as she does a pretty outrageous dance routine to Rick James' "Superfreak." (I won't give too much away because you have to see it to believe/enjoy it). While the woman in charge wants her taken off the stage, her family decides to get up and join her so everyone can be humiliated together. A few bunches of girls and their moms walked out, but a handful of people applauded by the end of it.

At the end of it all, she has them arrested and the cop says they're free to go as long as Olive isn't entered in another California beauty pagaent again.
Steve Carrell summed it up hilariously: "I think we can live with that." 

Remaining Social Commentary:

This movie came out before reality TV got a hold of pagentry. I hadn't seen a single "Dance Moms" or "Toddlers & Tiaras" and I'd very much like to keep it that way. Those are among my biggest American pet peeves. Few things annoy me more than stage moms, particurarly the ones that push their kids to the breaking point as if they want to live their dreams through them. The breaking point often consists of the kid wanting to quit because the competiveness is too much where it isn't fun anymore.

I have zero experience with that, but I know a thing or two about how we're all geared towards outer beauty vs. inner beauty. How certain body types and eye/hair color are valued higher than others. I'd noticed a year ago how a lot of makeup ads feature girls with blonde hair and blue eyes and how there're fewer models to represent my archetype (brown & brown). Even more annoying is how most models are required to be a minimum height of 5'7". I wouldn't necessarily want to be a model if it means resorting to developing an eating disorder to even looked at, but I take issue with not having an option because of something out of my control.

The pageant didn't take things as far as they could have, but when you're spraytanning little girls, the line is just seconds away from being drawn on that issue. 

Why on this list:

Other than reading all of the above mentioned, it's probably one of the best ensembles films you'll see as of the past decade. Great cast, obviously because I cited the strengths of each of them. As a result, I never forgot who Abigail Breslin was, but it's more out of coincidence that I'd seen a bunch of her movies since then. Either it was another member of the cast or the story that attracted me to it, but she's delightful to watch.
It's an original look at society in a way it hasn't been quite looked at before. It starts off a little somber, but with time, everyone grows on you and there are laughs along the way in places you'd never expect. More importantly, what's great about it is that it makes you think and reflect on how the world functions and how it things probably should change... but most likely won't, but you don't care as long as you're cool with being yourself.

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