Fox // 2006 // 102 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski (Retired) // February 18th, 2009
"No one gets left behind!"
A few years after it charmed its way into some Oscars, 2006's little-movie-that-could feels just as fresh and endearing as ever. If you missed it the first time around, Little Miss Sunshine is still a must-see. The question, of course, is whether Fox has put enough bells and whistles on this Blu-ray release to make the upgrade worth it...
Combining the time-tested comedy elements of "road trip" and "dysfunctional family," Little Miss Sunshine brings us along as an Arizona clan heads for the Pacific to enter their daughter in California's Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant.
The contestant in question is Olive (Abigail Breslin, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl), a kid with a bottomless reservoir of good cheer but without the looks to be real "pageant material." Her freewheeling grandpa (Alan Arkin, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter) doesn't let that deter him, though, as he tirelessly coaches Olive in preparation for the pageant -- in between his daily lines of heroin, that is.
Lacking Grandpa's commitment to the pageant cause, Olive's older brother Dwayne (Paul Dano, L.I.E.) allows himself to be dragged along for the ride, but maintains his vow of total silence and stays focused on his dream of becoming a fighter pilot. Heading up the Hoover family are parents Richard (Greg Kinnear, Nurse Betty) and Sheryl (Toni Collette, The Sixth Sense). Richard is a smaller-than-small-time self help guru trying to boost his rep, and his philosophy that winning and success mean everything will be strongly tested when he encounters the pageant crowd. Sheryl, like many a movie mom before her, mostly serves to keep the family together and not gouging each others' eyes out. She's also got to make sure that her brother Frank (Steve Carell, The Office) doesn't make any more suicide attempts. Frank, a big-time academic who studies Proust, has just tried to kill himself because a love affair with his male graduate student ended badly. So he's stuck with the rest of the Hoovers, riding a rickety yellow VW bus through the desert in pursuit of Olive's crown.
On the page, Little Miss Sunshine sounds like a movie you've seen in different incarnations plenty of times before. Indeed, the dysfunctional family dramedy seems to have had a particular boom as a subgenre in the past few years, perhaps hoping to cash in on the entertainment industry's solidifying realization that most families feel dysfunctional -- hence most viewers would rather watch the Simpson family and feel good about themselves than watch the Cleavers and feel bad. But unlike most of the off-kilter clans that Hollywood has been spitting out lately, the Hoovers never feel contrived. They're not overly ostentatious about their quirks, and they do not behave outlandishly for unmotivated shock value, like so many of their counterparts on premium-channel TV. Through the formidable talents of the cast, the able direction of husband-and-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and the whole crew's careful attention to detail, the Hoovers outpace their competition to become the most likeable dysfunctional family on any screen since Six Feet Under's the Fischers -- and significantly more cheerful than that batch of funeral directors, too.
From the opening sequence that introduces all the characters and their individual dreams, we can tell we're in capable hands. The score here is full of mournful horns that really lets us feel the darkness or disappointment that surrounds many of these characters, from the drug-snorting grandfather in the family bathroom to the eager father preaching self-help to a tiny crowd to the uncle still stuck in an existence he just tried to violently exit. This is a bold way to start a film sold to the public as a hilarious comedy, and Little Miss Sunshine's genius lies partly in its willingness to really be a drama, too -- to balance unsteadily on this risky peak between two defined genres. The success of that balance can be seen in the microcosm of young Abigail Breslin's performance. No moment in the film generates as many laughs and as much cheerful excitement as her show-stopping dance number at the pageant, but she also delivers the film's most heartfelt scenes when she comforts her brother or expresses insecurities to her grandpa. Breslin's sunshine is the brightest, but all six of the ensemble cast members add greatly to the film. Arkin keeps Grandpa from straying too far into the shock value of an old man who talks about sex and does drugs and makes his character one of the main emotional bedrock of the film. Carell, too, is great, shedding his Michael Scott persona to play an intelligent guy with a terribly dark storyline who still provides tons of laughs and even a bit of believable silliness with his astoundingly un-athletic running.
The cast is aided subtly, but crucially, by fantastic work from crewmembers in many areas of production -- particularly costume, cinematography, and music. All the characters wear their personalities in their wardrobes, without it feeling like an obvious shortcut. Olive's big plastic eyeglasses and rainbow wristbands make her the adorable little hodgepodge of quirks that she is. Khaki shorts and middle-aged-man sneakers (you know the kind I'm talking about) give Richard's look just the right feel when Kinnear puts them into motion. And Dwayne's bright yellow "Jesus Was Wrong" T-shirt is in perfect counterpoint to the happy yellow tones that usually radiate with Olive's optimism. The camerawork and the music, meanwhile, manage to draw a bit of an epic feel out of this otherwise small and grounded story, with the symmetrical track-in shot that helps introduce us to Olive or the big blue skies of the road trip that tower over the little bus as the soundtrack whistles them along.
Lastly, let's not forget Olive's dance number itself. If there's a more brilliant, on-the-money critique of those creepy-as-hell child beauty pageants, I haven't seen it. Way to tell it like it is, Olive!
So the film is great, but how about the Blu-Ray release? Luckily, Fox has gone beyond a simple cut-and-paste treatment for this little gem of a movie that elevates the Blu-Ray disc a significant step above the standard release. On a technical level, the film itself looks and sounds better than ever. The picture quality here notably exceeds that of the standard DVD, mostly in terms of sharpness and color saturation. Colors are now much warmer and more vivid, letting us feel the tenderness of the family through the visuals -- a good thing, too, since Little Miss Sunshine's whole aesthetic scheme rests on bright yellows! The image track isn't perfect, with some grain visible and a few scratches, but it's an improvement you can really feel. We're also treated to a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio track for this release, which lets us hear the great line delivery and very effective soundtrack nicely. I did think the mix kept the score too loud in relation to the dialogue, but it wasn't too much of a problem.
In the extras department, we get all the bonus material included on the standard release (two commentaries, alternate endings, the music video) plus quite a few new features: 8 minutes of deleted scenes, an 18-minute making-of featurette, 17 minutes exploring the six main characters, two more short extras on the music, a full 25 minutes of webisodes, and just a one minute taste of outtakes. The additions here are significant, especially since the original set of extras was a bit lackluster. Of those originals, the alternate endings are pretty interesting to watch along with their optional commentary, but the full commentary tracks can feel a bit tedious -- especially since the two directors are featured on both. Inevitably, we get some repetition between the tracks, and Dayton and Faris do no more than the usual here's-how-we-made-the-movie fare. Screenwriter Michael Arndt makes some interesting comments about the structural elements of screenplays, and of this one in particular, so I'd recommend the track with all three instead of just the directors. In general, there is an undue focus on musical group DeVotchKa in these extras. While the score was great, I didn't feel particularly edified or entertained by any of their three special features, so you might just want to skip ahead to the new featurettes and webisodes. I enjoyed the division of featurettes into a general one of the making of the film and another on the characters. Both are well paced and fun to watch, and we even get to see Faris running through the ending dance number herself. Plus, Breslin's interviews give us that obligatory isn't-she-cute footage that actually is remarkably cute. The deleted scenes are pretty forgettable (I guess the filmmakers made the right call), but the webisodes are a lot of fun. Most of these feature Carell interviewing himself, through the magic of editing, with truly funny results. In what feels like playful improvisation, he asks himself things like "On a scale of 9 to 10, how would you rate your performance?" and decides that the three people he'd take on a road trip would be Bronson Pinchot of Perfect Strangers, Stalin (mostly to see how he'd get along with Bronson Pinchot), and one of Hugh Hefner's girlfriends.
Dayton comments in the special features that before making Little Miss Sunshine, he "didn't understand that the simple process of watching people suffer can be funny." It's a testament to all who worked on the film that it can make us laugh at suffering without feeling sadistic -- that it preserves such a warmhearted and generous spirit. Big fans of the film should shell out for this Blu-Ray upgrade, and those who haven't yet seen it should pick it up for sure.
Oh, and "did I mention that I'm the pre-eminent Proust scholar in the U.S.?"
Review content copyright © 2009 Jennifer Malkowski; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Alternate Endings
* Deleted Scenes
* Music Video
* Poster Gallery
* Official Site