LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE
STARRING Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette and Steve Carell
DIRECTED BY Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Opens Friday, August 18
Tucked away on the website for Little Miss Sunshine is the most important milestone in the pre-feature careers of filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. The site contains many of the Santa Monica-based couples commercials for Volkswagen, PlayStation 2 and others, as well as their distinctive music videos for the likes of Smashing Pumpkins "1979," for which Dayton and Faris conceived a remarkably poignant tribute to adolescent aimlessness.
But more prescient in regard to the wildest moments in their feature debut are the last two clips, culled from their stint as directors on fabled HBO sketch show Mr. Show. Which is why when Dayton and Faris came to Toronto to promote Little Miss Sunshine I had to look them in the eyes and yell, "Oh my god
you directed the Wicked Sceptre sketch!"
The couple laugh, evidently pleased to have been part of a comedy milestone. "I wish we could take credit for that," says Faris, whos worked in tandem with her husband since they met as UCLA students in the early 80s.
"That was a great way to get one side of the comic spectrum," says her bearded, hat-friendly partner. "That troupe of people were just amazing."
"Theyre writers and performers," adds Faris. "It was intimidating to work with them and really fun. We shot a documentary 10 years ago with that group of comedians in L.A., and thats how we met Bob and David. We got to work on the last season of the show. We were such fans, too."
Though that sensibility is more absurd than much of Little Miss Sunshines contents, its certainly one of the tones that make up the film, which made the biggest news at this years Sundance Film Festival when it chalked up the fests biggest-ever sale (US$10.5 million).
Occasionally broad and mawkish, but often very funny, Little Miss Sunshine is the story of a family in which every member has a particular set of ambitions and obstacles. Dad, Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear), is a third-rate motivational speaker waiting on news of a big break. His brother-in-law Frank (Steve Carell) is a gay, suicidal Proust scholar. Richards teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence until he gets into the air force. Together with mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) and Richards cantankerous dad (Alan Arkin), they travel in an ancient VW bus from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach so that daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) can compete in a kiddie beauty pageant.
Wackiness inevitably ensues, but whats most remarkable about Little Miss Sunshine is the truth that lies in its portrayal of the emotional dynamics at work within the Hoover clan. Its less a comedy about a dysfunctional family than a portrait of an identifiably real one. Dayton recounts something Carell has said about the film.
"He said he never approached this as a comedy. I think for all of us, the first standard was simply, Is it true? Is what theyre saying believable or honest? We knew the laughs were there, but we never felt the need to expand on them or milk them."
"Its weird," says Faris, "because this film doesnt have joke kind of laughs. The humour comes from the situations and it keeps building on that insanity - that feels like real life. I dont ever remember a line had to be delivered in a funny way. The humour just came out of behaviour and being true to the characters."
In the four years that Dayton and Faris spent developing the project, they studied many films in hopes of capturing the same ring of truth. "Were big fans of Hal Ashby, Bob Fosse, Billy Wilder and Frank Capra," says Faris. "Their films were funny but there was a big human side as well."
Moreover, each of the characters in Little Miss Sunshine is driven by a need to be acknowledged as successful in the eyes of others. Their ambitions come to represent the wider obsession with success in America, one that ensures glory for a few of us and misery for the rest.
"We talked to the cast about how the film really pits two views of the world against each other," says Dayton. "The first line of the movie is: There are two kinds of people in the world winners and losers. But its really about the values of looking at life as a contest and looking at life as a dance. Hopefully over the course of this film, what the family members learn is to stop letting other people judge them and to just find the pleasure in the dance."
Yet the filmmakers themselves were heralded as this years champions in the Sundance sweepstakes, an irony that was not lost on them.
"We came out like winners," says Faris with some bemusement. "We dont write those headlines, though."
"It served to give the movie some newsworthiness," says Dayton. "We want people to be aware of it certainly but theres a point at which it becomes a target."
"My instinct when I hear about something like that is to say, Whats so great about it?" says Faris. "You come in with these preconceptions and not trusting what it is. The thing about this film is we feel it should be something thats discovered, not given to someone with the attitude of You must like this!"
Even so, Little Miss Sunshine works hard for audiences love and will likely earn it.