Supposedly, Little Miss Sunshine is a comedy. If so, it’s one of the most downtrodden, dank and dark comedies I can remember watch, while also being largely devoid of comedic moments. That alone doesn’t make it a bad movie, but apart from a few fun parts and a somewhat happy ending, this isn’t a movie you’d watch to make you laugh. Or maybe I just didn’t really get the type of humor it was going for; it’s not like that hasn’t happened before.
The story begins with a dysfunctional family dinner. We get to meet all of the family members right off the bat, and I noticed a lot of characterization, even if none of it is developed upon later. First, is the father, Richard (Greg Kinnear), a failing motivational speaker; Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), a gay scholar who recently tried to kill himself; Grandpa Edwin (Alan Arkin), who fought in World War II and is now a heroin addict; the cheerful Olive (Abigail Breslin) who wants to win a beauty contest; the incredibly depressive, yet silent 15-year-old Dwayne (Paul Dano); and finally, there’s the mother, Sheryl (Toni Collette), who is just trying to hold everything together, and also maybe quit smoking.
After some fighting, they realize a message is on the answering machine. Olive, who had entered some sort of beauty pageant before we enter, actually won it (after the real winner was disqualified), and as a result is allowed to compete in an even more prolific pageant held in California. The family doesn’t have any money to fly, so they all hop in the Volkswagen T2 Microbus and head out on a road trip. Nobody is all that happy except for Olive, who is happy just to get the chance to compete in this competition. You know how it works from here, although if you haven’t experienced a couple of road movies by now, I won’t spoil anything more right now.
By my count, there are 5 unhappy people, and one that is cheerful. Or at least, that’s how it should be, but Frank doesn’t ever seem that upset to me. He recounts his story of why he wanted to depart from the world at the dinner table, but apart from not being allowed to use sharp tools or sleep alone, the suicide attempt is forgotten about most of the time, and I would argue he’s the second happiest person in the vehicle. However, that’s not saying much, as nobody else cracks so much as a smile for most of their time on-screen.
By the end, yes, some things have changed. You’d expect them to, and it all centers around the little ball of sunshine that is Olive. We eventually get to see the pageant that the family is going toward, and despite not being the fittest or the best looking contestant, she wins over some people with her performance. Unfortunately, this comes far too late for it to leave a real impact, and the end of the film didn’t give me the closure that I wanted. It ends abruptly without answering some of the questions I wanted resolved. And since most of the experience isn’t all that pleasurable, this is a large misstep.
The so-called “inspiration” from the ending isn’t really all that inspiring either. The moments in the film where the father spouts random motivational quotes ended up being more inspiring than the ending, and considering the father isn’t exactly supposed to be great at his job, that isn’t a good thing. He constantly tells us that being a “winner” is the best possible thing to strive for, while “losers” are people to spit on and insult. I don’t recall if he actually specifies how you determine which category you fit into, but he goes so far as to tell Olive that eating ice cream could make you fat, and that would make her a loser.
We feel sad for Olive in this case, and we also think about how terrible it would be to grow up in that environment, especially when you’re not the best-looking or slimmest person alive. Being constantly told things like that could do real damage to a developing mind, and I know that I wouldn’t have liked to grow up in a home like that. I was thinking about this for a while after that scene, but that was more because my own thoughts were more entertaining than watching the Volkswagen fail to start for the umpteenth time.
The most entertaining character in Little Miss Sunshine is the grandfather, although (spoiler alert) he doesn’t make it to the end. He’s removed from the picture at around the half-way point, and as a result, we no longer get politically incorrect dialogue whenever he feels like it. This was another misstep in my eyes, because that’s where the funniest moments come from. Watching him say things that you don’t want a 7-year-old to hear is funny, as you get to watch the shocked faces of everyone around him. But then he leaves and we get to watch the more boring characters travel on their journey doing not much of interest.
I feel like I’ve been quite hard on Little Miss Sunshine, and truth be told it isn’t a bad movie, but there’s just nothing here to differentiate it from other road movies or make it a film you need to watch. It’s more depressing than funny, the characters aren’t all that interesting, and even though it’s supposed to end on an inspirational note, I didn’t feel inspired. Maybe the humor just didn’t mesh well with me, but I honestly didn’t find much of this film funny. It has its moments, but if you’re taking my advice, I’d say to skip Little Miss Sunshine.