Movies that revel in the glory of quirky families are certainly nothing new. Indeed, some of the finest movies in recent years have, somewhere near their core, a family of “unique” individuals whose neuroses and foibles are at once the source of their downfalls and struggles and their only possibility for salvation.
Blame it on Wes Anderson, and the broken, messed up characters that people such acclaimed films as The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic, but in recent years, tragi-comic “quirky family” movies seem to be all the rage, especially among America’s current crop of indie filmmakers. Witness Garden State, Junebug, Me and You and Everyone We Know, The Squid and the Whale, and now, Little Miss Sunshine.
However, it’s a trend that’s coming dangerously close to wearing out its welcome.
As Little Miss Sunshine’s tagline puts it, the Hoovers are a family on the verge of a breakdown. Richard is a motivational speaker touting a 9-step program that divides all of humanity into “winners” and “losers,” and he’s desperately trying to prove he’s a winner by obtaining a book deal. His wife Sheryl is the one keeping the family afloat, and while she might be the most normal of the Hoover clan, she’s also weary of carrying things while her husband chases his dreams.
Their son Dwayne is obsessed with Nietzsche, and his disdain for humanity is so great that he’s taken a vow of silence until he can enter the Air Force Academy and can leave his family behind. Sheryl’s brother Frank is the leading Proust scholar in America, but failures in both love and academia have driven him to attempt suicide, and mounting hospital bills have forced the Hoovers to take him in. Frank’s homosexuality provides a constant source of amusement for Richard’s porn-loving, foul-mouthed, drug-snorting father, who got kicked out of his last nursing home for doing heroin.
With such divergent personalities living under one roof, it’s amazing that the family’s pre-fab 1970s split-level doesn’t explode from all of the tension, especially when Richard tries to apply his ultra-simplistic motivational techniques to family crises. The only hope in the family seems to come from their youngest, Olive, a seven-year-old who is obsessed with beauty pageants, and who can be found in the basement practicing routines and studying tapings of “Miss America.”
While Richard scrambles to make his book deal work, Olive learns that she’s a semi-finalist in the “Little Miss Sunshine” competition, a beauty pageant for pre-teen girls. Unable to afford plane tickets, and unable to leave Frank, Dwayne, or Grandpa by themselves, Richard and Sheryl decide to cram the entire family into the clan’s rickety VW bus and travel several hundred miles to the competition in California.
At this point, it should be pretty obvious what’s going to happen during the next 90 minutes or so. For all of its quirkiness, the movie plays things pretty safe. The roadtrip will bring all of the family’s flaws to a boil, each one of them will hit rock bottom and have to deal with some personal demon, and in the end, everything will come together in a delightfully oddball manner.
That sounds rather snarky, and to be fair, Little Miss Sunshine is full of delightful little moments. The little things — Frank’s sarcasm in the face of Richard’s rigidness, the crass “advice” that Grandpa gives Dwayne concerning the ladies, their bus’ litany of mechanical failures, the group’s shock at the weirdness of pre-teen beauty pageantry — do prove enjoyable, and are definitely worth a few chuckles.
But after awhile, the constant quirkiness and oddity becomes as rote and routine as any generic Hollywood melodrama, and just as subtle — this one just happens to reference Proust and Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and have a foul-mouthed grandpa. Rather than add a little spark or unexpected flavor to the film, the quirkiness soon becomes little more than a mere plot device.
All of the characters’ foibles are simply there to drive the plot forward, and maybe generate a few giggles (or winces) along the way. There aren’t any characters in the film, only caricatures. Steve Carell gives a solid performance as Frank, whose pathos probably elicits the most compassion, but wonderfully-portrayed caricatures are still caricatures nonetheless.
Perhaps Little Miss Sunshine’s biggest failing is that it isn’t quirky enough. I’m sure that many will draw up comparisons between Little Miss Sunshine and the aforementioned films of Wes Anderson, but such comparisons are a bit off the mark.
Anderson crafts entire filmic worlds that are as odd and skewed as his characters, parallel universes that exist only within his movies, and in which everything — the weather, the architecture, the artwork, even the typography — moves to the same skewed rules of logic and forces of nature. Everything becomes more realistic, or perhaps hyper-realistic, because there is no disconnect between the characters and the world in which they find themselves.
However, the Hoovers of Little Miss Sunshine clearly exist within the “real” world (sadly, there really are pre-teen pageants as freakish as “Little Miss Sunshine”), and so their quirks become even more obvious and generated, manipulated to be as strange and indie as possible.
And sadly, the eventual (and predictable) resolutions lack the sense of joy and healing, the dramatic “oomph,” that they could have had otherwise. Rather, they feel perfunctory, lightly tossed off so that the movie can get back to the quirks and oddities, or rather, its attempts at the quirks and oddities, all the while winking at the audience, hoping that folks don’t realize how clichéd it’s become.