A motivational-speaker father who’s losing his motivation, a Nietzsche-obsessed mute son, a Proust scholar uncle who’s barely on nodding terms with existence and a grandfather who’s been thrown out of his retirement home for snorting heroin... If this family got any more ‘wacky’ they’d be sectioned under the Someone Gag Robin Williams Act (see Patch Adams and Flubber).
Penned by first-time writer Michael Arndt and belly-rubbed to purring-point by Sundance critics, Little Miss Sunshine pays a heavy debt to indie quirk-master Wes Anderson with its parade of Royal Tenenbaums-style, pseudo-academic oddballs drawn together on a life-altering quest (The Life Aquatic). But the film has too much heart to be self-consciously tricksy. Debut directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris maintain a strong, confident mood that teeters excitingly on the edge of farce. There’s gay porn, dead bodies and some very anti-Anderson dialogue (“Fuck as many young girls as possible,” Alan Arkin tells his grandson, before extolling the virtues of heroin: “At your age, you’re crazy to do it. At my age, you’re crazy not to do it”). It’s capped by a stand-out performance from Carell – a painful and subtle transformation from suicide-fetishising beardy depressive to slightly sanguine beardy depressive.
Sunshine badly wants to be “scathingly satirical” (so it says in the press pack), but it’s not. By the time they reach the contest – where make-up-caked pre-pubescents parade in their smalls – there isn’t really room for any cultural barbs. Like life, the journey is all.
But such cynicism wouldn’t suit it anyway. Strip away the oddball trappings and Sunshine is a rack of simple tales – a father discovering the true meaning of success, a son coping with teen angst, a mother holding a family together – all smartly and sympathetically executed without cliché or schmaltz. Feelgood fun for all the dysfunctional family.
Not quite as cray-zee or scathing as it thinks it is, but Sunshine's mix of playful mockery and irony-with-heart lets it shine.