All in the family

Dysfunction and storyline take some time to pay off

GET ON THE BUS<br>Greg Kinnear leads the family to where the grass is green and the little girls wear more makeup than a Sunset Strip hooker.

Greg Kinnear leads the family to where the grass is green and the little girls wear more makeup than a Sunset Strip hooker.

Little Miss Sunshine Starring Abigail Breslin, Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell and Alan Arkin. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

Frank (Steve Carell) is hating life. Literally. Seems the object of his obsession has gone and hooked up with his main competitor. Usually that might get sympathy from kith and kin, but here his love and hate are both men. So as silly men sometimes do when confronted with a silly problem, he finds a way to make it worse. And when the worse becomes even worse, that leaves suicide as the only solution. Of course, how silly.

It doesn’t work and he finds himself consigned to purgatory for his sins. Purgatory in this case is being placed under the care of his sister’s family unit. And as per small, indie-comedy requirement, this family is dysfunctional. Silly dysfunctional, but still fundamentally dysfunctional.

Sister Sheryl (Toni Collette) thinks that a KFC bucket of chicken and a liter of Sprite every night at the dinner table is a well-rounded meal. His brother-in-law Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a tract-based-home inspirational speaker. Nephew Dwayne (Paul Dano) is a Nietzsche-obsessed teen who has taken a vow of silence until he gets accepted to the Naval Academy as a fighter pilot. Gramps (Alan Arkin) is a porn junkie who snorts heroin in the bathroom. And then there is Olive (Abigail Breslin), a dumpling of a little girl who seeks to assume the eponymous crown in a prepubescent beauty pageant in California.

They live in Albuquerque, N.M., and Frank isn’t exactly wowing the masses with his dreary nine-step program, so it is left to the Hoovers to clamber into the family VW bus and head to the Golden State to make the deadline for entry in the pageant.

So far, Sundance-friendly cookie-cutter fodder. Sporadically amusing, but nothing special. The film is pretty hard to warm up to at first, though, as the filmmakers seemed overly obsessed with focusing on the most aggravating aspects of minutia. The “snick, snick, snick” of the mother’s flip-flops drove me up the wall. For the most part, it kept chugging along on that quirky, indie-film-about-nothing vibe so that when it actually did say something, I was pleasantly surprised.

When what is left of the Hoovers arrive at the Redondo Beach hotel, they find that their silly dysfunctional ways are comparably straight out of a Family Circus panel as they are exposed to the Manson Family Circus ways of the Little Miss beauty competitions. We’re talking “Super Freak” central here, folks … those kids were some of the creepiest subjects I’ve seen on screen in a long time.

And even creepier yet is the cold, unblinking fact that these girls—a squad of little girls tarted up like daycare hookers—are not played by young actors or even 30-year-old midgets, but by actual adherents of the lifestyle in their actual costumes. I suppose some folks might be able to rationalize parading their Little Miss Next JonBenet about for the pervy pleasure of a group of randoms, but here I’ll have to agree with the obvious intent of the filmmakers (husband-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris) that these folks are fundamentally … well, words fail me.

The pageant at the end serves as a caricature of the cultural delusions that have been crippling the psyches of the Hoover family, as children are paraded about by their parents as grotesque, thinly veiled sexual objects while the quasi-pedophile of an emcee squats down and croons “God Bless America” in the ears of the girls, and the ensuing hypocritical outrage as Olive (presumably working as the vessel of an editorial comment by her grandfather) literally and figuratively strips the veneer of the proceedings bare.

Everyone in the family has these odd, fractured ideas of what being a winner entails and none of them can move on to actually being themselves until they shed them. They cannot become winners until they accept that they are losers on their current track. And just like them, Little Miss Sunshine staggers along until it finds its true bearing and becomes a true winner.