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August 25, 2006

Highway to Hell

Mom, dad, grandpa, silent brother and suicidal gay uncle head out to a six-year-old’s beauty pageant

Leo Tolstoy begins his novel Anna Karenina with the thought, “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

His theory goes far to explaining why most films dealing with families, at least those aimed at mature audiences, are more likely to be filled with dysfunction than they are to be idyllic portraits of domestic tranquility.

An entire theater full of Cleavers and Andersons and Nelsons would probably be akin to hell, a demented utopia of “Yes, dear” and “How was your day, sweetheart?”

Thankfully, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have parlayed their success in directing commercials, music videos and quirky HBO sketch-comedy series into what should stand for decades as a prime example of how to magically combine intelligence, emotion and humor into a glorious whole.

That might be better written as “a glorious hole” in the case of Little Miss Sunshine, since that is what little Olive’s family finds themselves in.

Abigail Breslin plays this darling tyke, who came in second in a feeder competition for the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant. She just received word that the winner of her beauty contest for six and seven-year-old girls was disqualified--something to do with diet pills.

Olive has two days to get to the big pageant in Redondo Beach, California from her home in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Her father (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker who can’t seem to get his system sold, so the family doesn’t have enough money for Olive and her mother Sheryl (Toni Collette) to fly out. Dad offers to drive them in the VW bus.

Unfortunately, Sheryl’s gay brother Frank (Steve Carell) just attempted suicide and she has strict orders from the doctor not to leave him alone. Not really caring about much of anything any more, he agrees to go, but that leaves Grandpa (Alan Arkin) and Olive’s teenage brother Dwayne (Paul Dano) alone in the house.

Dwayne has taken a vow of silence inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche, and will not speak a word until he is accepted into the Air Force Academy.

Grandpa got kicked out of his retirement community because he decided that, at his age, he would be crazy not to snort heroin.

So they come, too. Sheryl’s just chain-smoking to keep her frayed nerves from finally snapping.

Little Olive is the only one who is happy in this dark comedy. Out on the road, faced with mechanical problems, personality conflicts, color-blindness and death, the family comes together to support their little garnish and get her to the pageant.

Once there, God only knows what will happen. After all, Grandpa is the one who has been coaching her in her dance routine.

Of course, the writing and directing are excellent, but one needs actors to make a film (at least for another few years). And the cast is also excellent.

Young Paul Dano certainly stretches his wings compared to his role in Not Another Teen Movie. He’s dark, he has angst, and the slow smile that creeps across his face listening to his parents argue in the next room is a rare moment of perfection in the cinema.

Arkin, Kinnear and Collette have all been nominated for Academy Awards--deservedly so--and their performances here live up to their reputations.

Kinnear’s smarmy, “go get ’em” motivational speaker attitude with an underlying note of crabbiness might be a little too reminiscent of Captain Amazing from Mystery Men, but it works perfectly in this film. Kinnear is the go-to guy for all-American jackasses like Amazing or Olive’s dad, roles he has the looks and the skill to play. Don’t doubt that it takes skill to be a schmuck on film, and Kinnear is very skilled.

Arkin has aged into his part well, although he does seem to play an inordinate number of quirky grandfathers or grizzled old cops nowadays. No matter the role, he still seems to have that love of acting that makes him a joy to watch.

As for Toni Collette, if Charlize Theron got an Oscar for making herself ugly as Aileen Wuornos, Collette should at least be nominated for transforming herself from Australian beauty to lower-middle-class American housewife so convincingly. It is beyond easy to forget who she is, or even that she’s acting.

While the film nominally centers around Olive, the movie really belongs to Steve Carell in his role as Frank. He probably has more character development and back-story than anyone else in the film, and he is far more low-key than his roles on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, NBC’s The Office or even his supporting role in Anchorman would lead one to believe he could handle. This is far from the broad humor of The 40-Year Old Virgin.

Frank is the nation’s pre-eminent Proust scholar. He fell in love with a grad student. He lost the grad student to his primary professional rival. He even runs into the grad student in a gas station on the way to Redondo Beach.

The movie’s title refers, in a campy, sarcastic way, as much to the suicidally depressed gay uncle as it does to the young beauty pageant contestant.

Abigail Breslin, though, does deserve major congratulations on her performance. There are a handful of comedies, indie or otherwise, that have portrayed young girls realistically (Welcome to the Dollhouse and Donnie Darko are two that spring to mind), and Olive is a remarkably well-rounded character, dealing with conflicting emotions and doubts believably and in a way that does not make the snarkier members of the audience wish violent, gruesome death upon her.

Fox Searchlight made a very good decision picking up this film for a paltry $10.5 million at Sundance this year. Hopefully, this means audiences can expect more from the directors and screenwriter Michael Arndt.


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