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Case Number 10493

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Little Miss Sunshine

Fox // 2006 // 103 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // December 19th, 2006

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All Rise...

So if you're young, you're crazy to do drugs, and if you're old, you're crazy not to do drugs. So, Judge Ryan Keefer asks, where's the soft, chewy middle?

Editor's Note

Our review of Little Miss Sunshine (Blu-Ray), published February 18th, 2009, is also available.

The Charge

"I'd like to dedicate this to my grandpa, who showed me these moves."
"Aww, that is so sweet. Is he here? Where's your grandpa right now?"
"In the trunk of our car."

Opening Statement

Little Miss Sunshine has been regarded in many critical film circles as the little engine that could. Not many people have seen it, however those who have are raving about it. The fact that it has television's newest face of comedy in it (The Office's Steve Carell) also helps when it comes to market the film, which is the long-awaited feature film directorial debut of music video auteurs Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Is Little Miss Sunshine the ray of hope?

Facts of the Case

Let's go back in time to the year 2000, shall we? You might remember it as the beginning of when our Presidential Elections were challenged (or threatened) legally to the Supreme Court, because no one could count punches on cards. The New York Yankees used to be kind of good. And the Smashing Pumpkins were desperately hanging on to any shred of relevancy they had as artists or entertainers.

Speaking of the year 2000, Pumpkins video collaborators Dayton and Faris were handed a script by Michael Arndt, who wrote an interesting story about a less than successful motivational speaker (Greg Kinnear, Autofocus), his wife (Toni Collette, About a Boy), her suicidal brother (Carell), and their children, a son named Dwayne (Paul Dano, Fast Food Nation) and a daughter named Olive (Abigail Breslin, Signs). And the family patriarch is a heroin snorting brute (Alan Arkin, Slums of Beverly Hills). Their mission is to travel from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, California so Olive can appear in a beauty pageant there as an alternate. After several years of production headaches, the film documents the family's two day, several hundred mile trip to either success or failure. Little Miss Sunshine is a 97-minute account of this trip, both in triumph and tribulation.

The Evidence

I can't honestly remember the last time I have actively rooted for the cast of a film to succeed or do well through the course of their journey in a film. It's not that the story starts out with any real significance, or that the premise is all that original. To paraphrase Paul Thomas Anderson for a moment, getting four characters in a cramped environment only makes for an organic process of dialogue to start, which worked in films like Melvin and Howard and Hard Eight. It is a road trip movie, so on the surface it looks awful familiar. But it's in the way the characters relate to one another, along with the direction of Dayton and Faris that make for some truly special moments.

Okay, so maybe the character quirks (like Dwayne's devotion to silence as a pledge to get into the Air Force) are a little bit too showy, as if they're proud to be strange, even if that pride is a little bit clichéd. The performance that really stands out is Breslin's. We're talking about a girl who hadn't even entered the double digits in terms of age when the cameras started rolling, yet she's in almost every scene and steals the show. You share so much in the apprehensions of her character, and you share her joys when she has them. She even shares a moment with her brother that shows wisdom well beyond her years (she is supposed to be age 7 in the film). Another road film that people could mention when discussing the film is Paper Moon, as her performance might be close to what Tatum O'Neal did when she was a child, and just as memorable.

Now there are still moments of some humor in the film that are clever attempts at shifting the mood, and because the characters are so convincing, they seem to resonate more with us then in other films. Instead of just being the trendy independent film where the characters loathe one another for the sake of appearance, the Hoover family cares for one another despite every one of their quirks, and it's that love that keeps things uplifting. Arndt, Dayton and Faris, with the help of the cast have helped redefine the American road film and provided for one of the most unique comedic films of 2006.

Fox hasn't really done much with the DVD release of this film. There are two commentaries, the first is a "director's only" track with Dayton and Faris. In it, they focus mainly on the production of the film, and that many of the moments captured are as natural as possible, such as the interactions between Arkin and Breslin, and they also discuss what they liked about Arndt's script and what made them want to do the film, even if it was five years in the making. The second commentary with Dayton, Faris and Arndt is a little bit better, focusing more on the story and the characters, and even some back story for the characters is provided during the commentary. Dayton and Faris provide some more production stories on the film, but some are duplicate anecdotes from the first commentary. All three seem to briefly allude to the delays in getting the production realized, but no real details are offered, so it would be a back story that would be worth listening to in my opinion. In addition, there are several alternate endings that aren't too bad, but as the football hero said to the virgin, there's nothing like the first. Commentary with Dayton and Faris is optional. A music video is included as an extra as well.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Allow me to vent for a bit on a couple of things that grind my proverbial gears.

Though most studios have abandoned the practice, Fox sends us watermarked discs. This means that the shady guy at the local convenience store probably has a better copy than I do. I honestly couldn't fully enjoy the film because of its shabby presentation. While I understand the need to protect assets as well as the next guy, I hope that studios know that their films can't be fully appreciated by critics with the measures in place now. I hope they work to improve on this.

Second, the lack of substantive extras on this disc is awful. A flipper disc (not that I got to enjoy that particular "benefit") with two commentaries and five minutes worth of alternate endings? Dayton and Faris even allude to some scenes that didn't make the final cut. If I were to guess, I smell a double dip in May or June after the 2006 awards season. Something with a little more gusto is required for a film of this caliber.

Closing Statement

With its arrival to video store shelves, Little Miss Sunshine is an absolute must see. The performances are fresh and fun, particularly Breslin's, the emotions are real, and the laughs are dark without being too dark for the whole room to enjoy. One would hope that it gains a new life in the video market so it gets the proper treatment it deserves.

The Verdict

The cast and crew are vindicated for their work, however the studio is sentenced to watch similar "copy protected" discs until they're tired of seeing what I had to see.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 59
Audio: 82
Extras: 41
Acting: 96
Story: 86
Judgment: 89

Perp Profile

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• 2.40:1 Anamorphic
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Comedy
• Independent

Distinguishing Marks

• Directors Commentary by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
• Screenwriter's Commentary by Michael Arndt with Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
• Four Alternate Endings with Optional Directors' Commentary
• Music Video


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