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The elusive ideal of a "normal" family

  • 30 October 2006

Little Miss Sunshine, Rated M. Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Starring: Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carrell. Website. The opening scenes of this film are reminiscent of previous quirky films such as Magnolia and The Royal Tenenbaums. The device of a small introduction for each character is neither fresh nor original, though it is engaging.

It does not take long, though, for Little Miss Sunshine to find its own identity and personality. Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ take full advantage of a great script to play with the audience as much as they can, which makes for a hilarious, feel-good, road trip film. The performances across the ensemble cast of Little Miss Sunshine are outstanding. Kinnear plays Richard, the father and a failing motivational speaker. Uncle Frank, played by a believable Steve Carrell, is the "formerly most eminent Proust scholar in the United States"; his attempted suicide leaves him in the care of his sister, Sheryl (Collette), the archetypal worrying, loving mother. Other family members include the 15-year-old Nietzche-reading son Dwayne, and the young, beauty queen wannabe Olive. Then, there's the crotchety Grandpa character with a twist; Alan Arkin plays an amorous, heroin-snorting, angry old man. The most interesting character in this oddly assembled film is Richard, the failing motivational speaker. He constantly employs his rhetoric and catchphrases when speaking to his family—but an unsuccessful motivational speaker cannot be a person that instills great confidence in anyone. Kinnear is very funny in this role, if slightly predictable. It is Collette who truly shines in her role as Sheryl.  Collette's performance reveals very little about Sheryl’s character, other than that she is concerned with fulfilling the "mother figure" role. Sheryl does not seem to have any personal quirks or habits that make her stand out from any other "mother" characters in film.

What is striking about the character is the very ordinariness of Sheryl, in comparison with other members of the family. Sheryl is the locus of normality for the family, the calm heart at the storm of conflict and mayhem that the other members embody. She grounds and guides the other members of the family. Sheryl does not enjoy her own epiphanies, like others in her family, but rather enjoys their shared resolutions. Her happiness is found in reflection from her family. The characters in Little Miss Sunshine run the gamut of extreme behaviour. For all that, though, they are a sympathetic bunch, and directors Dayton and Faris seem at pains to highlight