Little Miss Sunshine
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Written by Michael Arndt

Starring Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell


Little Miss Sunshine

For many years the Directors Guild of America had an ironclad rule: Only one person could be credited as the director of a feature film. In recent years they've relaxed the rule occasionally, as they did this summer with "Little Miss Sunshine," directed by the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, making their feature debut; unfortunately it proves only that while less may be more, as the Bauhaus taught us, more, in the form of two directors, is certainly less. "Little Miss Sunshine" is an idea for a film - not original but not bad either - that the directing team somehow allowed to get away - far away - from whatever they intended. There's a germ of a bitter comment on American values, there's a hint of a Preston Sturges-like satire, and maybe even a whiff of Laurel and Hardy. But none of these ever pans out, and so the occasional good, witty or thoughtful moment is simply left to hang, twisting slowly in the wind.

"Little Miss Sunshine" is the story of the Hoover family of Albuquerque: father (Greg Kinnear), a motivational speaker losing his audience and on the downslope of his career; mother (Toni Collette), trying to hold the family together; her brother Frank (Steve Carell), a gay Proust scholar just getting over his failed suicide attempt; their teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence according to his reading of Nietzsche; grandpa (Alan Arkin), foulmouthed and addicted to snorting heroin; and seven-year-old daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin), who is desperate to win the Little Miss Sunshine competition to be held in two days in Redondo Beach, California. The journey to the contest, filled with every possible obstacle, is what drives the film's plot.

As I say, it's not a bad premise, and the characters are conceived creatively enough to hold us, involve us and amuse us. But the film asks us to fill in too many gaps in its own creative structure. Every line is just a bit flatter than the moment requires, every scene is just a bit duller and more predictable, and by the ostensible climax, at the competition, everything about "Little Miss Sunshine" has just gone to hell. What might have been a wonderfully cruel commentary on our fascination with dressing prepubescent girls up to look like cheap hookers has been undercut obscenely by the recent return to the front pages of the JonBenet Ramsey case - not the fault, certainly, of the filmmakers, but a most unfortunate coincidence, in which reality trumps fiction once again.

But even if we take the film on its own terms, the bizarre dance that Olive does in the competition (apparently created for her by her grandfather out of his own memories of burlesque strippers) just isn't either funny, dirty, sexy or tragic - take your pick - and so what we've been led to believe is the climax just falls flat.

More than that, everyone in the film seems to be in his or her own, separate world: Kinnear, as dad, overplays every line; Collette is in a domestic drama; Breslin, as Olive, is so sweet and childlike we never understand why she needs to be sexy. Only Steve Carell, as the witty, gay brother, carries the right tone in his lines, and underplays in a way that lets us believe in him. Where's Preston Sturges when we need him?