Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Cast: Abigail Breslin, Greg Kinnear, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin, Toni Collette and Steve Carell
I must say, I had braced myself for something horrible. Visions of simpering semi-anorexic pre-teenage girls flashed past my mind's eye while I waited for 'Little Miss Sunshine' to start. I should have known better. I should've realised that the cloying title had already taken up ninety per cent of the film's cutesiness quota.
Self-help, drug abuse, philosophy, attempted suicide...this was not the feel-good, family values movie I had expected. This was a dysfunctional bitter comedy which took a long, hard look at 'normal' society and spat in its face, before trundling off in a bright yellow VW Camper.
The story follows the efforts of seven year old Olive, and her determination to win the, er, prestigious Little Miss Sunshine award. To get there, her supportive and sometimes over-zealous parents have to drive half way across the country in a camper van, with, due to circumstances beyond their control, the whole malfunctioning family in tow.
Now, if the sight of a post-suicidal, scholarly uncle, a crack-snorting grandpa and a Nietzsche obsessed teenage boy squashed in the back of a van sounds far fetched to you, then 'Little Miss S's' dry humour may be a little askance for your taste. You also obviously haven't met my family. Though occasionally fanciful, the characters - built on some superb acting - are really what make this film. Worth particular mention is Abigail Breslin ('Signs') who had the tricky job of making a beauty pageant fixated little girl into a charming central protagonist. She manages this wonderfully, with a winning seriousness and a furiously innocent determination to achieve what she has set out to do.
The pace lags a little at times, and throughout, the film has the unshakeable tone of a high-profile TV series, along the lines of 'Six Feet Under' or 'Desperate Housewives', right down to the pacy, Tarantino-like soundtrack. So people - if you're waiting for the next DVD of your favourite show involving infidelity and corpses to arrive from Amazon, and are suffering the usual pangs of A.D.W.S (American Drama Withdrawal Syndrome) then this film is where you can stop those junkie urges and get a good, clean hit.
Not that the humour in 'Little Miss Sunshine' is always clean. There's some brilliant comedy involving a stolen (but legal) corpse and some eye-watering porn magazines, although these are nothing compared to the comical climax of the film, which had me in some rather taken-aback stitches.
Visually it's excellent, with some eye-catching, iconic features, like a huge sketch of Nietzsche scrawled on a bed sheet and of course, that adorable yellow camper van.
It's also the kind of film which could only have been made in today's social climate. For instance, if you feel the urge to sound smug and well-informed in front of friends and relatives, point out, in a bored voice, the veiled reference to youtube.com in scene eleven.
Far from being saccharine mind-fodder, 'Little Miss Sunshine' offers plenty of food for thought, and actually improves on a second viewing. (Unlike real food, which benefits very little from regurgitation.) Although a little messy in places, it is colourful, and while the ending could be called vague, at least it isn't vomit-inducing.
For hiding an unexpectedly bitter comic treat beneath the sweet title, and for the delicious thought-provoking aftertaste, I give 'Little Miss Sunshine' a palatable 7/10.
Laura De Noves