DVD Review: Little Miss Sunshine

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Meet the Hoovers, a dysfunctional family of quirky individuals who have bad traits ranging from overzealous optimism to heroin addiction– but who remain, through a series of ordeals that would stress out saints– endearing, engaging and utterly entertaining.

In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the entire family pile into a beat up old Volskvagen van and go on a roadtrip from their home in New Mexico to coastal California, where nine-year-old Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) is going to enter a beauty pageant (by default, that is, because another contestant dropped out). From the moment Olive finds out she’s in, and runs through the Hoover house screaming with delight, until the moment she, wearing a top hat and breakaway tuxedo, waltzes on to the stage populated by the bizarre little Barbies of the pageant contestant set, the plot is a delightfully twisted version of a road movie– romp of mishaps and diversions that give you the great escape of laughter. Along the way, for example, the Hoover’s good old VW bus takes a turn for the worse (mechanically, that is) and there‘s a running gag in which the family members have to push the van to get it started, then run (literally) after it and jump into it. Clever choreography and timing make this gag on the roll absolutely hilarious.

Best about the film, ‘tho, are the characters: Olive’s dad (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker who’s pushing his book, “Refuse to Lose,” so he can carry his weight in supporting the family. Grandpa (Alan Arkin), who choreographed her dance routine, is an aged hippy whowas kicik out of an old age home because of his drug habit. Her brother (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence until he enters the Air Force Academy and speaks only through hand gestures, facial expressions and, occasionally writes his thoughts in a notebook. Olive’s mother (Toni Collette) is just trying to keep it together– and look after her brother (Steve Carell) a gay Proust scholar who’s recently attempted suicide. They might not sound funny– but they are, especially because the actors play them so seriously. Great performances all around.

The DVD features commentary by co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valarie Faris, with lots of insider insights about independent filmmaking. A second commentary has the directors speaking with screenwriter Michael Arndt, who talks a lot about the interesting character development. There are also four alternate endings on the disc. Fullscreen and widescreen versions on opposite sides of the disc, The fullscreen side has the “Till the End of Time” music video (performed by Devotchka), a soundtrack spot, and three other Fox trailers (Sideways, Garden State, and the Illusionist, but no Little Miss Sunshine).

Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).