Rated R for a lot of stuff. Besides a casual use of explicit language, including sexual content, the movie deals with pornography, suicide, and the objectification of children. It sounds like I'm really coming down hard on the movie. I mean, with that list, I probably should be all up in arms. But really, this is a movie that has a lot of content, but doesn't applaud any of these things. If anything, the heavy content is more meant to help us look at how these elements affect daily life. Okay, the movie is kind of cool with pornography, because it makes for a really good joke. Rated R.
DIRECTORS: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
I might have to take a small break after this. When I was on the verge of shutting the blog down, I told myself that I had to make less restrictive rules. Instead, I now work on a schedule that doesn't accommodate the blog, but rather builds in breaks to a schedule. Also, I have a colonoscopy tomorrow that makes me get up at 2:30. If I manage to finish Tomorrow Never Dies tonight, I don't know if I'll have the wherewithal to sit down and write an insightful blog about a well-forgotten Bond film. Also, realize, that if this blog completely falls apart, it means I'm doing colonoscopy prep. If you don't know what that means, Google it on safe search.
This is one of the movies in the Fox Searchlight box set that I already owned and loved. I accidentally skipped it and watched Last King of Scotland instead. Yeah, I took a hard tonal shift when it came to picking that movie instead. With Garden State, I was worried that the film wouldn't hold up. With Little Miss Sunshine, I knew that I was going to have a good time, regardless of the cultural context of the film. Yeah, both Garden State and Little Miss Sunshine have that indie twee quality behind them. (I recently discovered the word "twee" has a more negative connotation than I thought it did.) But I think I might just like twee stuff. I mean, I don't ironically crochet or anything, but I think I appreciate hipster indie culture. Let's just say, for a guy who never really got into music, I have a lot of Belle & Sebastian on my phone. This means that a film like Little Miss Sunshine would be right up my alley anyway. I implore the reader to realize that the movie already did a lot to sell me in terms of tone and aesthetic with its hipster indie vibe, but also know that I realize that, if you don't like this kind of stuff, I can see being put off by it.
The oddest realization that I came to is that Little Miss Sunshine is simply a slightly more serious version of National Lampoon's Vacation. In a certain sense, the road movie --especially the road comedy --is a very worn template. There are only so many things that can happen in a road comedy and there are certainly going be be beats that overlap. But it was with the death of Grandpa and stuffing him in the trunk that really sold me on the whole idea. At first, I thought the comparisons were fairly simple. But it really does make a solid double feature with the original Vacation. Richard Hoover and Clark Griswold share far too much in common for me to ignore. Clark is easy to laugh at. He's meant to be the comic protagonist. Richard, however, is rarely a laughable character. If anything, he's the most punchable character. He says mean things. He's obsessed with his own mythology. But ideologically, they are fundamentally the same person. Both characters are goal-oriented to the point of comic mischief. I think the good road movie needs to have Clarks and Richards. After all, we are aware that any sane family would simply bow out when the cost of the trip outweighed the benefits of the trip. But that character must be super punchable to make that happen.
Because these characters see themselves as the martyr to an unforseen goddess. Clark, with his trip across the country, honestly believes in the legend of the family vacation. I'm a dad and I love family trips. But I'm not the dad who is obsessed with making people miserable just to say that we had a great outcome at the end. Nope. I'm all about comfort and relaxing. But I know the type like Clark and Richard. Clark sees these trials as gifts to his family. He is bringing everyone together, despite the protestations of others. He is the hero of his story because he's saving his family. While it is easy to see Clark's attitude as skewed, Richard takes the same attitude and grounds it somewhat in reality. Richard is a terrible parent. The tension around Richard is palpable. Watching everyone at the table eating chicken allows us to see the family dynamic clearly. Okay, Olive doesn't hate Richard, but she doesn't have the capability for hate. But Richard sees an objective good to be done: Olive's competition.
Because Olive is so excited to go to Little Miss Sunshine, Richard is able to reconcile two disparate elements to his personality: winning and being liked. When Richard's on all of his high horses about winning, he comes off like a jerk. But the fact that he is willing to drive Olive all the way to California to make this little girl's dream come true, he actually believes that he is the shepherd of some noble cause. I mean, we all see that he's just deluding himself. But from Richard's perspective, he sees his obsessive personality paying off for something that is far greater than himself. It's because the other family members don't have a leg to stand on when it comes to Richard's idea to go across the country in a van that Richard sees himself supporting his toxic personality trait: winning.
There's also this cool juxtaposed connection between Frank (Steve Carell) and Eddie (Randy Quaid). Frank and Eddie serve as exiled commentators on the events of the story. After all, this character should not be there. In Clark and Richard's minds, the way that they act around their family is different from the way that they act around extended family. As far as I remember, and I may be wrong, but both Frank and Eddie are their spouse's brothers. They are outsiders in their eyes. Also, their personalities are in conflict with the protagonist's own. For Clark, Eddie represents laissez-faire parenting. Clark, the bastion of perfection in the face of failure, has a guy who embodies being cool with failure. Richard, a man who is obsessed with success and accolades, is being judged by someone who actually is considered successful, despite his recent bout with suicide. Frank is falling from success and Richard can't get his success off the ground.
The rest of the family kind of fits too, but perhaps in a less grandiose manner. The grandparents are both caustic personalities added to the story for comic relief. In the case of Little Miss Sunshine, Grandpa is actually kind of likable. Like, he's a little rapscallion. Dwayne is really a stand-in for Audrey. This is a real bummer comment to make, but Audrey always had the least to do in the Vacation movies. Really, the movie focuses way more on Russ. But because Dwayne is silent, that has to be a metaphor for the ignored kid. With the case of Paul Dano's Dwayne and his silence, that is far more compelling than Audrey's arc in the Vacation films. All this really leaves is Russ and Olive. I have a harder connection with this one, except for the fact that they both serve as cheerleaders for the group. Russ is far more lo-key than Olive. He can be a bit more whiny. But as Olive serves as moral support for Richard when everyone is against him, Russ is the guy who cracks open a can of beer with his dad in the desert.
Before I close up, I do want to look at the one big criticism I have of the movie: Richard. I like Greg Kinnear. But is it just me, or is Richard a bit too intense? I realize that he's unlikable. He's supposed to be. I'm all on board for that. But at one point, Richard loses all sense of self-awareness. Like, even if he's kind of a bad guy at heart, there are certain things that we can chalk up to reading a room. The scene that is most infuriating for everyone has to be the ice cream scene. There's a table full of people who are clearly mortified that he's fat shaming his young daughter. They all make this grandiose gesture to support Olive's desire for ice cream and Richard still pushes. It's moments like these that make him almost a caricature of an unfeeling character versus the reality of the situation.
Regardless, I adore this movie. Okay, adore might be a strong word. The movie has heart where it needs it. Yeah, it's twee. I don't care. It's about people who all wear their hearts on their sleeves and it makes for a compelling movie. Sure, the bones of the movie are just National Lampoon's Vacation. But it still makes for a heartwarming tale about family.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.