Little Miss Sunshine Was a Solid B+

A few points about Little Miss Sunshine, which I saw, and very much enjoyed, last night:

1. I’m a sucker for any movie that builds to a climactic scene in which people dance to show their commitment to life and to eccentricity. Thus Little Miss Sunshine. Thus Napoleon Dynamite. Thus Footloose (the mother of all "we dance to show our commitment to life" movies). Barbershop had a great dance scene that was a variation of this type — it was "we dance to show our commitment to black life" — though it wasn’t the climax of the movie. As I’ve said before, and will say again, people enjoying themselves dancing to good pop songs is just awesome to watch.

2. There’s a genre of movie that builds more and more tension and anxiety toward a cathartic point where it’s exploded in one climactic scene. Little Miss Sunshine is almost one of these movies. Napoleon Dynamite is a good example. Punch Drunk Love was really the ultimate example, with Adam Sandler’s character having to undergo humiliation after humiliation after humiliation in order to give "punch" to the climax, a brutally short –and wicked awesome — scene in which he beats the crap out of like 6 guys in about 15 seconds, thus redeeming his manhood and proving that his love for Emily Watson is real and strong. It’s an amazing scene, but I could never watch the movie again. The catharsis is great, but it’s too unpleasant to see Sandler so degraded for so long. It was worth the payoff the first time, when it was unexpected and therefore truly redemptive. But watching the movie again wouldn?t provide that ? I?d be waiting the whole time for the ass-kicking scene.

3. As my WHBFF (Wicked Hot Best Friend Forever) pointed out, Steve Carell?s character doesn?t seem the least bit suicidal except for maybe the first 15 minutes of the movie. After that he seems mildly depressed (by the end, of course, his depression has wholly lifted).

4. How predictable was it that The Village Voice, which has the sourest, most pretentious film criticism squad in the mapped world, would hate Little Miss Sunshine? Very predictable. In fact, they hated it twice, first after it screened at Sundance in January, and again after its more recent nationwide debut. In the more obnoxious of the two reviews, because it was longer, Jim Ridley writes:

Little Miss Sunshine is the latest in a long line of Sundance clunkers, from Happy, Texas to Me and You and Everyone We Know, that seems to have developed its impression of human behavior from incomplete space transmissions. Why does Sheryl, who doesn’t want to take the van because she can’t drive stick, suddenly decide when they’re already on the road that she needs to learn? So the gears can go out, turning the van into a rolling junkyard that requires group pushing. How does Richard manage to sweet-talk a biker into loaning him a ride? That scene, in a Preston Sturges movie, might’ve been a pip?an illustration of the power of can-do optimism, that pure-grade American snake oil, to hypnotize even the skeptical. But the movie just breezes on by, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a stranger to hand over his bike. By the time the family makes a hospital getaway with a loved one in the trunk, the characters have edged from foolish to humanly unrecognizable.

The problem isn?t that The Voice calls out the movie?s pretensions. They?re absolutely right that it?s a certain type of Sundance-esque formula movie ? the dark, quirky family comedy ? that has as predictable and as rigid a set of rules as any Hollywood blockbuster genre.  A "real" family is dysfunctional. Grandpa’s foul-mouthed (and racist, probably). Someone’s gay. Mom and Dad aren’t getting along and are always needling each other. The road is a metaphor. Cramming everybody together in a series of awkward situations will ultimately bring them together and allow room for some redemption. etc. It’s a formula. But what the fuck is the problem with that? Action movies have a formula too, but no one’s complaining at the end of Die Hard when Bruce Willis drops Alan Rickman off the side of a very tall building because, after all, that’s what we want Bruce Willis to do, and Alan Rickman totally deserved it.

The problem with The Voice is that their awareness of the formula, and their editorial decision to pre-emptively, pretentiously dislike all of these movies, deforms their perceptions. Why did Toni Collete?s character decide to learn to drive stick halfway through the movie? Because she and her husband had been in a low-grade war with each other for years, and driving a stick shift was one of the last fatherly/manly things that Greg Kinnear could do that his wife couldn?t, and if she proved that she could learn it in a few minutes, it would hurt him, and she wanted to hurt him. Okay, maybe it was a bit of a contrivance to allow the van-pushing gimmick into the movie without it looking to contrived, but as a scene in their marriage it wasn’t implausible. As for the Preston Sturges comparison ? it?s totally inapt. The scene never could have been about ?pure-grade American snake oil,? because by that point in the story Kinnear was so desperate he wasn’t even buying his bullshit anymore, and there’s no way he could have sweet talked a group of rowdy, antisocial teenagers (not "bikers," by the way, and it wasn’t a bike; it was a scooter). He probably got the scooter either by paying to borrow it or by appearing so desperate that the guy loaned it to him out of pity.

For an example of how to do it right, look at the review in The Onion by the stalwart Nathan Rabin. He recognizes all the weaknesses that Ridley and Lim do, but he’s able to properly contextualize them because he wasn’t watching the movie with the chip already firmly set on shoulder. He writes:

Movie titles are inherently designed as come-ons, but some function more as warning signs. The title of Little Miss Sunshine, like that of 1998’s Happiness, serves as a giant flashing sign reading "Danger: Leaden Irony Ahead." The film’s premise similarly primes audiences for a shrill, misanthropic parade of All-American grotesques. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Sundance sensation stars Greg Kinnear as a deluded third-rate motivational speaker; Alan Arkin as a heroin-sniffing, porn-obsessed, endlessly profane grandpa; Paul Dano as a Nietzsche-fixated teenager pursuing muteness as an eccentric lifestyle choice; and Steve Carell as a suicidal gay academic. Yet the film accomplishes a remarkable feat of creative alchemy by breathing life and depth into characters that, in lesser hands, could easily have come across as grating caricatures. It helps to have a cast stocked with ringers with the chops to play comedy as drama and drama as comedy.

Little Miss Sunshine abandons its commitment to low-key naturalism for a goofy, far-fetched, crowd-pleasing climax. But by that point, the film has earned its laughs by making the audience care about characters who begin the film as broad comic types, but end it as sympathetic, fully formed, multidimensional human beings.

 How ’bout them apples.

 

Author: Dear Dexter

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