True, it’s hard to imagine a more aggressively prefab “indie” than Little Miss Sunshine, which seems to have been conceived and written to pander to as broad a demographic swath outside the mainstream (well, right next to the mainstream) as possible. It’s about a dysfunctional family road trip. Its cast of quirky characters includes a suicidal Proust scholar, a mute teenager taking cues from Nietzsche, a suffering but stoic wife, an ambitious but fundamentally bone-headed husband sending all the wrong messages, a cranky, dirty-minded grandfather who sends the right ones, and an adorable little girl.
Screenwriter Michael Arndt puts them through their paces with a rigor that evolves from the tautly clever storytelling of the opening sequence, which introduces each major player and establishes their foibles, to a more slipshod narrative built on metaphor, coincidence, and forced reconciliations.
Every critic’s least-favorite scene in the film seems to be the hospital caper that leads directly into the film’s tedious home stretch, and that’s where I really lost interest, as well. However, the performances are very appealing (Abigail Breslin? Next time you see Dakota Fanning, tell her she can kiss your ass), and music-video veterans Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris direct with a forthright confidence and simplicity of expression that propels the unlikely yarn through some rough spots.
And then, in the final reel, something miraculous happens — the film climaxes as the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant finally welcomes little Olive, a guileless underachiever in a hotel full of tiny, highly sexualized painted ladies, onto the stage. Suddenly, the film squares up what feels like about a dozen contradictory impulses — it’s simultaneously dopey and wise, riotous and sublime, splendid and vulgar — and, for a few moments at least, and if only from my seat in the room, all was forgiven. Clunky though much of the film had been, and cranky though I was just a few minutes earlier, I had a happy grin plastered on my face as the credits started to roll. That’s worth something.