A Comic Ray of Light ; FILM OF THE WEEK

Article excerpt

Little Miss Sunshine15)

Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris (101 mins) ****

STARRING Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Abigail Breslin

I wonder why it's a movie principle that dysfunctional American families have to go on road trips in order to find out about themselves. Couldn't they do the job more conveniently at home? We know the way to healing and reconciliation is a 'journey", but does it have to be an actual journey? In the modest and endearing comedy of disappointment Little Miss Sunshine, the reasons for getting the troubled suburban family, the Hoovers, out of the house and on to the road are tenuous to the point of absurdity, yet by the end of their bumpy ride you feel glad for having joined them: they've got on each other's nerves without, miraculously getting on ours.

At its root is a sense of headstrong American competitiveness, personified in the not-very-likeable character of Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear), a motivational speaker whose "refuse to lose" philosophy is not winning friends or influencing people, in a big way. We first see him doing his nine-step programme for success on stage, then the camera draws back to reveal a piteous handful of listeners. He's also trying to keep a book deal alive, and his increasingly plaintive phone calls to a business partner suggest that his own steps programme is in tragic reverse. Or let's say tragicomic, for there can be no job more embarrassing to fail at than that of success guru.

His wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) is trying to keep things together, though the combination of Richard's pomposity and her children's eccentricity is making it almost impossible. Her seven- year-old daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin), a podgy, bespectacled munchkin, is determined to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, and her teenager Dwayne (Paul Dano) has retreated into silence and a deluded obsession with Nietzsche's bermensch (talk about competitive!).

As if that weren't enough, Grandpa (Alan Arkin) has been kicked out of his retirement home for snorting heroin ("the intervention was a fiasco") and her brother Frank (Steve Carell), a Proust scholar, has just slashed his wrists over a stupid love affair - and now must be kept on suicide watch by the family. On his first night he shares a bedroom with Dwayne, who scrawls, in mute Holly Hunter- style, on a notepad: YOU WON'T TRY TO KILL YOURSELF, WILL YOU?

With deviance and daffi-ness stacked so high the movie might just have toppled into whimsy, or worse, into the sort of chaotic dysfunction that has recently capsized director Todd Solondz. Instead, the husband-and-wife directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, working from Michael Arndt's script, steer a very canny line between comedy and realism. …