Ten million dollars. Last January, Little Miss Sunshine made headlines at Sundance, where killer word of mouth and standing ovations convinced Fox Searchlight to drop a reported $10 million to distribute the indie film. That reception for the film—which had a budget of only $8 million—became both a blessing and curse. Sure, being the toast of Sundance is great. But if history proves anything, it's that high expectations go hand in hand with a higher risk of disappointment.
So, good and bad news: No, Little Miss Sunshine isn't quite deserving of all that cash and ecstatic buzz. But yes, once you get past all that impossible hype, Little Miss Sunshine is still pretty great.
A dark comedy about a family road tripping from New Mexico to California in a busted-up Volkswagen van, Sunshine's an accomplished first-time outing for screenwriter Michael Arndt and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. The family's driving hopeful, adorable seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) to the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant; along for the ride are Olive's parents, the earnest Sheryl (Toni Collette) and self-absorbed Richard (Greg Kinnear); her silent teenage brother, Dwayne (Paul Dano); her cantankerous grandfather (Alan Arkin); and her depressed, Proust-loving uncle, Frank (Steve Carell). The whole ensemble's great here, especially Arkin and Carell; everyone's real, developed, with complicated aims and no shortage of whimsical melancholy. So to the strains of DeVotchKa and Sufjan Stevens, the van chugs through the desert, meeting their crises and hijinks with an unrelentingly charming tone.
Which, actually, might be Sunshine's biggest problem. Even as characters die, cry, and realize the empty futility of their dreams, Little Miss Sunshine is constantly enjoyable—dark in subject matter but light in tone. Since spending time with these characters—even the most fucked-up ones—is such a pleasure, it's hard to buy into the film's inherent sadness, especially when the all-out comedic sequences work so well. In other words, Little Miss Sunshine is kind of a one-note deal. But hell, when that one note is this solid, being a one-note deal is kind of a nice problem to have. Just like being the toast of Sundance.