five years ago
oscar run viii: united 93 (paul greengrass, 2006)

oscar run vii: little miss sunshine (jonathan dayton, valerie faris, 2006)

That was it?

I can skip the part about whether or not it will get any Oscar nominations … it’s a possible Best Picture candidate, and will likely get a Best Original Screenplay and a couple of Best Supporting Actor/Actress nods as well.

Which is why I ask, that was it?

The best thing I can say for Little Miss Sunshine is that there’s nothing awful about it, and its feel-good dysfunctionalism makes me feel like a creep if I say anything bad. There are some good things going on here … lots of fine acting (for my money, Toni Collette is the best, but all of the main performers are good), and I suppose it’s nice that a movie exists that comes out on the side of freaks yet appeals to the mainstream.

But the tone of the film is confusing. If it’s a comedy, it’s not very funny. If it’s a drama, it falls flat. If it’s in between, well, it would help if the comedy was funny and the drama was engrossing. Take the death of Grandpa. He ODs on heroin … was it supposed to be funny, sad, a commentary on our times, or what? The family is sad … of course they are, one of them has passed away … but the death results in slapstick scenes of hijacking the body so they can drive down the freeway to a kid’s beauty pageant. It’s not a case of complex emotions, or of a movie that shows how even death can be funny, or any of that stuff … it’s a movie that will do anything to make a particular scene work, and when the end result is a mess, well, hey, it’s indie cinema, life is messy, what, you have something against freaks?

The big finish, while it was actually surprising (and funny), is just as confused as the rest of the movie. After a series of sex-pot performances from little 7–year-old girls, which I assume we’re meant to find disturbing, on comes little Olive to do her act. I think … again, if the movie worked, I’d know, I wouldn’t think … I think Olive’s act is supposed to be a commentary on the sick awfulness of the other performances, and of kids’ beauty pageants in general. But that’s not how it comes across. Olive isn’t great because she critiques the norm … she’s great because her version of the norm is less “authentic” and more crappy than the others. She’s great because she’s not good at being bad, and that’s not really a critique of what she’s trying to be. It’s a feel-good moment because she is a wonderful girl even though her act isn’t as good as the others. If the film really came down on the pageant, Olive’s act wouldn’t have been a lesser version of the others, it would be something entirely different. That she dances to “Super Freak” is indeed surprising and funny, but the only pro-freak thing about what follows is that she’s not very good at being a freak (which is a freaky thing in its own way). She’s really more normal than the other girls. How nice. Me, I’d rather she’d been freakier than the other girls.

The harried mom, the Kramden-esque dreamer husband, the suicidal brother, the moody teen, the grouchy grandpa, and the cute-as-a-button little daughter … do people really find this an original bunch? Each character’s quirks are original, I’ll give them that … grandpa does heroin, the brother wants to die because his work as a Proust scholar is underrated (by his peers, and by his ex-boyfriend). But none of these characters are anything other than characters in a movie. The actors strive mightily to make something of what they’re given, and most of the film’s success comes from those actors, who manage to suggest humanity where it didn’t likely exist on the page.

I suppose if there are going to be feel-good family movies, it’s nice that there’s one which is R-rated and freak-positive. I just wish it was a better movie than Little Miss Sunshine.



I won't try to argue. I recommended it and stick by it. But I did think it was a great departure for Steve Carrell from his usual schtick.


I thought Steve Carrell was very good, but I think he's long past having a usual schtick. His Daily Show persona is different from his Office persona which is different from his 40-Year-Old Virgin persona is different from his Miss Sunshine persona ... he's just plain good.

I tried thinking about the movie in the context of my "what is the role of the critic" post, where what matters isn't my opinion about the quality, but whether or not I can provide any useful context. But the best I could do was say that I think the movie was far too safe for something that promoted itself as freaky-indie. But that really has little to do with whether or not someone would like it, and I can think of a lot of people I think would like the movie. Me, I'm surprised I liked it as much as I did, since it's not my kind of movie and I didn't care for the approach. The acting carried the movie for me.


I think you're right on target, and I mentioned a couple of times that the expanded audience for this movie is probably a good thing. My point is that it ends up being something other than freaky ... I didn't get a message of Freak Is Good from the movie, I got a message of Freaks Are Normal, Even More Normal Than Those Who Think They Are Normal, which isn't the same thing.


Doesn't that make people who think they're normal supremely freaky? I like that.


I hear you, and what's going on here, I think, is another case where expectations result in different opinions on the same movie. I don't want the message to be "freaks are normal." I don't want the message to be "normal is good." I don't see the point of making a movie that purports to take the side of the freak, that ultimately argues that freaks are normal. They aren't normal, that's the point. It's like saying that Minority X (choose one, it doesn't matter which) is "just like white men." The point isn't to be like white men, the point is to take pride in what you are.

This interests me very much. I am teaching Ghost World this semester, and I think it fits very well into this discussion. I like Ghost World a lot, and as we talk here, I realize the reasons I like it are missing, for me, in Little Miss Sunshine. So all my negativity here might be saying is Little Miss Sunshine isn't Ghost World, and Ghost World is what I wanted.

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