When the family in this movie learns that their van cannot be repaired in time for them to get to the Little Miss Sunshine competition, they decide to drive it as is. And that means that in order to get it to start, they all have to get out and push, then chase after it and jump in. And so every time they have to stop for food or gas or adolescent meltdown or illness or being pulled over by a cop, even when they are miserable and furious with each other, they all have to get out and push together and then run and jump inside. And every time that happens, all of them laugh and feel somehow proud and happy and connected.
All of them means: Richard (Greg Kinnear), the father, a motivational speaker and writer who knows everything about winning except that he hasn’t been able to actually succeed at anything, Sheryl (Toni Collette), the mother, who is doing her best to hold everyone together, including her brother, Frank (Steve Carrell), who recently attempted suicide over the loss of his lover to the second-most important Proust scholar in the country (he explains that he is the first), teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence because, as he explains in writing, he hates everyone, Grandpa, Richard’s father (Alan Arkin), who got kicked out of the nursing home for profanity and heroin-snorting, and of course Olive (Abigail Breslin), the Little Miss Sunshine contestant herself.
“Everybody just pretend to be normal, okay?” begs Richard, as a highway patrolman pulls them over. But what is great about this family is that, while they are far from the idealized notions of normality presented in television commercials and Hallmark cards, they are in fact very normal. Sometimes that works better for them than others. Richard’s most “normal” quality is his effort to be normal, to succeed in conventional terms. His desperate attempt to think of himself as not only successful but as someone who can define success for others as a career is a reflection of the American spirit — its unquenchable hope, ambition, and belief in the future. Sheryl has a different kind of unquenchable hope. She is not convinced that Richard knows what he is doing and she is not always able to live up to her own expectations, but she is clear about her commitment to her family and her own ability to provide the support that they need.
The script is uneven, but every one of the performances is a gem. Breslin (Signs) has a quiet dignity and a beautifully natural quality that makes every one of her responses feel fresh and endearing. Carrell is brilliant. He even runs in character. Dano makes his silences eloquent. There is not a more tender moment in any movie this year than when Olive comforts him after he gets some devastating news.
This is a family that makes a lot of mistakes. They hurt each other, and they fail quite often. But when they have to get the van to move, they all push and run after it and jump inside. And when one member of the family faces public humiliation, in a moment of great, jubilant abandon, they throw themselves into a solution that is both heart-stoppingly tender and outrageously hilarious.
Parents should know that this movie has extremely strong material including very profane language (used in front of a child). Characters purchase pornography and there are explicit sexual references. A character abuses drugs and one attempts suicide. The issue of sexualization of little girls in beauty pageants is presented. There is a sad character death. Some audience members may be disturbed by the provocative material and gallows humor, much of which is observed by a child in the film.
Families who see this movie should talk about the way Richard and Sheryl respond to their children. How will things be different after the pageant?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Happy, Texas.