a quick take by Tony McRae

The summer movie season has decided to rehabilitate itself even though it’s only two weeks to Labor Day.  And it’s a little film that’s responsible.  “Little Miss Sunshine” is spreading rays of joy and laughter throughout the country as a dysfunctional family is determined to get their nine-year old daughter Olive to the finals of a beauty pageant, even if it means piling all six family members into an old VW bus for a cross-country trip.   

How dysfunctional is this family?  The father Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear), a flop as a motivational speaker, can’t speak to his wife (Toni Collette) without screaming; Olive’s brother (Paul Dano), a Nietzsche follower, hasn’t uttered a word for nine months; Olive’s uncle Frank (Steve Carell) is a renowned Proust scholar who’s just tried to kill himself; and lastly Olive’s grandfather (Alan Arkin) has a drug problem which got him thrown out of his nursing home.  

Despite its obvious wackiness, this family has something incisive to say about what it means to be a member of a family, even one with serious problems.  And it does it charmingly, without pretense and preachiness.   

The movie is wonderfully cast.  Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette are often underrated, usually playing supporting roles.  That should end with this movie. Steve Carell (the star of “The 40 Year Old Virgin”) is, in my book, the funniest and most insightful comedian working today.  His Uncle Frank is totally believable.  Alan Arkin’s grandpa may not be the kind of grandpa you’d want for your child, but he is the grandpa your child would want.  Yes, he’s foul-mouthed (his language is probably the reason the film got its R rating) but he loves his family, especially Olive.   

Ah, Olive.  She’s nine, she’s cute in a pudgy sort of way, certainly not cut out to be a beauty contestant, but she is confident and determined, and she loves her family totally.  She is played by Abigail Breslin whom I can’t say enough about.  I’m ranking her up there with Margaret O’Brian in “Meet Me in St. Louis .”  When you see this movie, just watch the little girl’s face as she and her grandpa have that crucial heart to heart talk in the motel room.  

The ending, the actual pageant contest, is hilarious.  No question, the directors Dayton and Faris, are pretty merciless in their treatment of prepubescent beauty contests, but they never lose sight of Olive and her family.  This movie is a winner.  

Rated R for language, some sex and drug content