Comedy-drama movies are an odd thing. They juxtapose contrasting moods that ultimately form a story during which we can both laugh and cry. I’m sure that is an insanely difficult thing to pull off well. Little Miss Sunshine (2006) did it perfectly. I honestly can’t imagine a better film that is full of honest emotional drama and laughable situations.
In Albuquerque, Sheryl Hoover (Toni Collette) brings her suicidal brother Frank (Steve Carell) home to the care of her dysfunctional and bankrupt family. Sheryl’s husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) is unsuccessfully trying to sell his nine-step self-help and self-improvement technique to reach success. Her son Dwayne (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence as a follower of Nietzsche and aims to be a jet pilot. Dwayne’s grandfather Edwin (Alan Arkin) was kicked out of a retirement home for heroin addiction. When Sheryl’s seven-year-old daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) has a chance to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in Redondo Beach, California, the whole family travels together in their old Volkswagen Type 2 microbus. The Hoover family deals with every imaginable obstacle a road trip can have as well as escalating conflicts with one another as they try to give Olive every chance she can get to reach her dream.
The thing that stands out most to me in this movie is the acting. The performances are full of remarkable subtleties. The actors (and of course, the writer Michael Arndt) really grasp how unspoken reactions can be funnier than witty comebacks or sarcastic dialogue. It demonstrates also that pain and conflict can be the source of some of the funniest material. For example, Dwayne’s eyes frequently portray a bleak, dead outlook on life and the character is full of teenage angst and disgust. In reaction to his family’s antics, he just tilts his head in an almost imperceptible way to get us to crack up.
After the initial individual character introductions, there is a brilliant scene of the family dinner. This serves to develop the dynamics between the characters. The dialogue feels so natural here and we get a clearer understanding of how the family views one another and what kind of conflicts there are between family members. All the characters are so well developed that you can’t help but empathize with them and their losses and successes.
There is genuinely funny comedy in this movie. I was cracking up throughout the movie. But the funny moments come and go, and in their place is some very real drama. I felt bad when Olive cries for fear of being a loser and potentially losing her father’s love and respect. I felt uneasy when Frank’s academic rival appears at the same gas station, causing to resurface the feelings and thoughts that drove him to attempt suicide. I empathized with Sheryl who is at her wits end trying to keep the family together and happy. You will laugh and cry in this movie, and these two contrasting emotions the movie tries to elicit don’t detract from each other. It is excellent writing!
The Hoover family encounters just about every problem they can on a road trip. One of the earliest problems is after their first stop; they can’t get the VW bus to start again. The aging van’s clutch breaks. Since the van is so old and obsolete, the part must be special ordered which will take up to two weeks. Richard is unwilling to give up, and they take the advice of the mechanic; they push the van until they reach 20 miles per hour and start the engine in third gear. This means they avoid stopping unless absolutely necessary and that it takes a group effort to get the bus moving. Not only is this a hilarious running gag that is used in very creative ways, but it also represents the family needing to work together to keep the family moving and reach their goals.
I simply adore the overall theme of the movie. It is through pain and suffering that we learn and grow the most. The movie is about ideals and dreams versus illusions and reality. The beauty pageant in particular shows us thematically how ridiculous and subjective ideals are. The Hoovers are a family that suffers though trials together, refuses to give up, and decides to do what they like, in spite of what the world dictates is best.
Little Miss Sunshine is “rated R for language, some sex and drug content.” There really isn’t any sex in this movie; we just see the covers of some of grandpa’s porn magazines. We also see grandpa snorting heroin once or twice. I didn’t think it was worth getting offended by them. Language is pretty prominent, though. I do not like profanity, but there are situations in real life that are so intense that nothing can beat a well placed F-bomb. Little Miss Sunshine is full of situations like these. I don’t like how much profanity is in the movie, but it is meaningfully implemented. Anger, rage, and frustration become so intense that saying “gosh darn it” would just sound incredibly stupid.
Little Miss Sunshine is a beautiful movie that is very well written, remarkably well acted, and skillfully directed. There are reasons it won academy awards for best original screenplay. Even the cinematography and color palette are eye-catching. If you can tolerate the profanity, I highly recommend seeing this movie. It’s humbling and dramatic, but still hilarious and funny. I’ve got a copy sitting on my movie shelf along with other favorites.
What is a dramatic comedy, or “dramedy” movie that you really enjoyed? Do you have a favorite? Comment below and tell me why!