I was originally not planning on reviewing Little Miss Sunshine because I did not feel that I had anything of import to say about it, but now that it is poised to upset in the Oscar Best Picture race, I cannot help but marvel at the marketing genius employed. From the hard-to-miss canary yellow VW bus roaming the streets of LA to the “Little Best Picture” FYC ads running on every website covering film, the film’s publicity team is wisely, albeit shamelessly, capitalizing on the inherent “cute factor.” Undeniably, the film is hard not to like, especially Abigail Breslin for providing not only the cherry on top of the proverbial sundae, but the chocolate syrup, the sprinkles, and that ooey gooey strawberry confection. Alan Arkin added the nuts. “Cute” may be enough for a summer blockbuster, but is it enough to win Best Picture? Should “cute” be enough to win Best Picture? Do we place too much emphasis on “important message” films? Does America value films that provide an escape from our problems or those that are a reflection of those problems? If it is the former, then Pan’s Labyrinth should certainly be the movie to embrace. However, I suspect that Little Miss Sunshine is so beloved because there is literally very little to hate. The other four nominees this year (Letters from Iwo Jima, The Departed, The Queen, and Babel) are all polarizing in their theses as they grapple with issues such as trusting our leaders, creating our identities, understanding the enemy, and unifying our world. Each of these topics can be argued, but it is hard to disagree with the message that there is more than one way to be a winner. The movie does not polarize because it does not take any risks. In the past ten years, “independent film” has become synonymous with “dysfunctional family” to the point that it has become its own genre, ultimately defeating the point of independent film. In today’s industry where independent films are regularly being snatched up and distributed with studio backing, films should no longer be classified as independent solely based on their source of funding, but with an equal weight on the independence of its subject matter in comparison to the other three hundred movies being released in any given year. Under that definition, Little Miss Sunshine fails as an independent film since it is simply RV without the spewing sewage.
Its nomination for Best Original Screenplay should really be changed to Best Adapted Screenplay since the characters are actually transplanted directly out of other films, many of them about dysfunctional families themselves. Cursing grandparent (Wedding Crashers)? Check. Emo kid that hates his family (every independent movie with a teenager)? Check. Hard-working mother played by Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense)? Check. Motivational speaker that oversteps boundaries (Magnolia)? Check. Homosexual (Running With Scissors, Kinsey, etc.)? Check. Intellectual (The Squid and the Whale)? Check. Depressed/suicidal (The Virgin Suicides, The Hours, etc.)? Check. Outsider to provide viewpoint on the madness (Junebug, Wedding Crashers again, etc.)? Check. Bonus points for the latter four all being the same person. Admittedly, the relationship between Olive and her grandfather was unique in its ability to capture Olive’s veneration of Grandpa and Grandpa’s love for Olive and although the manifestation of his time with Olive was inappropriate, the relationship itself never felt inappropriate. For making a relationship between a crack snorting senior citizen and his adorable ice cream loving granddaughter endearing, Arndt’s screenplay deserves some merit. And it is hardly typical to find a rated R movie with a ten-year-old protagonist about the strength of family. However, when the characters are hackneyed, the road trip format is hackneyed and the message is hackneyed, how can it be considered a cinematic triumph?
Little Miss Sunshine is practically impossible not to enjoy while watching it, but when the reel ends, so does the movie. The mark of a great film is one that can ingratiate itself into our discourse either in its quotability (Animal House, Meet the Parents, etc.) or because it presents viewpoints to be argued. Simply, it must be remembered. Unless Dayton and Faris are using the Hoover family as a microcosm of our world to suggest that homosexuals, geriatric druggies, emo kids, overbearing parents and pudgy children can all co-exist by dancing in the face of adversity, Little Miss Sunshine is rather inconsequential. Even without the facetiousness, the true message about winners coming in a variety of flavors can be met with a resounding “So what?” We all nod our heads in agreement and move on.
At least the publicity campaign will be remembered.