Friday, July 28, 2006

"Sunshine," other small films brighten mid-summer blues


directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
starring Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, and Abigail Breslin

I have to admit it: I rolled my eyes the first time I read about “Little Miss Sunshine.” An independent movie about a quirkily dysfunctional family on a road trip, it sold for a record $10.5 million at Sundance—a sure sign of inflated expectations—despite the incontrovertible fact that if there’s anything the indie film industry doesn’t need more of, it’s road trip movies and movies about quirkily dysfunctional families. It didn't help my skepticism that Sundance darlings often find themselves in a tough spot once the glow of festival fever has faded: success at Sundance only occasionally translates into box office sleeper-dom, and doesn’t always translate into adulation from the critics, either.

I’m therefore pleased to report that “Little Miss Sunshine” actually lives up to the hype. On paper, and in the trailers, it seems unprepossessing enough—the kind of indie script that strains for originality by presenting a gallery of stylized freaks and geeks, each with his or her own set of tics and requisite twisted back story. The gallery in this case includes a smarmy wannabe self-help guru, Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear); his harried, put-upon wife Sheryl (Toni Collette); their nearsighted, gaptoothed little 7-year-old daughter and aspiring beauty queen, Olive (Abigail Breslin); Sheryl’s adolescent son from a previous marriage, Dwayne (Paul Dano), who’s taken a Nietzchean vow of silence; Richard’s potty-mouthed, heroin-ingesting, lecherous father (Alan Arkin); and, finally, Frank (Steve Carell), Sheryl’s gay brother, a preeminent Proust scholar who’s the last to join the Hoover family ménage in Albuquerque after a failed suicide attempt. When the Hoovers receive word that a spot’s opened up for Olive to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine child beauty pageant in Redondo Beach, they fuss and bustle for about five minutes, then pile pell-mell into a mustard-yellow Volkswagon bus and set off for California.

Despite the glaring contrivances of this setup, what’s surprising about the end product is how effortlessly enjoyable it turns out to be. Written by newcomer Michael Arndt and directed by husband-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, “Sunshine” transcends its quirks thanks to two things. First, it’s genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny in a way this genre of film rarely is. The humor is zany without being crude (well, except for a few moments involving Grandpa’s dirty mind and predilection for porn); it’s also surprisingly sweet-natured and sensitive to the Hoovers’ varied attempts to inject meaning into their lives. Each family member, it turns out, has been clinging to a personal dream that’s been shattered or is on the brink of being shattered. That these dreams are frequently comical—partly because the dreamers take them so seriously—somehow enhances, rather than diminishes, the bitterness of their disappointment. We feel their pain, even as we may laugh at its source. It takes a little while for this motley crew to find its rhythm, but before long they’ve all registered indelibly on our sympathies, both individually and collectively, even as we’re cracking up at their all-too-human (and only slightly exaggerated) follies.

Which brings me to the second reason “Sunshine” works: the acting is, without exception, outstanding. No one character rises head and shoulders above the rest—an indicator, in this case, of first-rate ensemble acting—but Steve Carell shows perhaps the best comic timing, especially for someone who’s supposed to be clinically depressed. Breslin, too, is a winsome presence and that rarest of rare finds in American cinema, a child actor who actually acts like a child; the film, to its credit, plays against her natural cuteness rather than manipulating it, while at the same time making it clear that Olive is the fulcrum of the entire family. The character most likely to grow on you unawares, however, is that of Olive’s insufferable dad. Gratingly irritating at first, he acquires a certain poignancy as we see the desperation creeping up around the edges of Kinnear’s slightly plastic good looks, and the unexpectedly fierce devotion to a family who has as little use for his hollow motivational maxims as we do. It’s a small measure of victory for Richard that the clan comes together for a few fleeting, unforgettably hilarious moments, before climbing back onto the yellow bus and driving away. Some may find that ending too abrupt; but in fact it’s in keeping with the whole motivating force behind the trip: this unlikely moving unit came together for one purpose, and one purpose alone; that purpose being fulfilled, it’s time to go home. One thing you have to hand to the Hoovers: they know better than to overstay their welcome.


I saw “Little Miss Sunshine” quite a while ago, as part of a screening series a friend of mine got me into. Here are a few other films I saw from that series, all of which are out and playing in limited release:


written and directed by Chris Paine

Some may suspect, not without reason, that this documentary is a flaming piece of liberal environmentalist propaganda. But you don’t have to be a liberal or an environmentalist to find it compelling, or to be convinced that the oil and auto industries, as well as various other social and political forces, moved to stem off and eventually to kill the initiative that created, for a brief shining moment, the emissions-free electric car. “Who Killed the Electric Car?” has a brisk, forceful yet surprisingly light-handed persuasiveness, even if—or perhaps because—it sometimes plays like electric car-porn as it lingers lovingly over the sleek, cute-as-a-button EV-1’s that were created, leased, and ultimately rounded up and destroyed by GM, among others, during the mid to late 1990s. What’s most intriguing, in some ways, about the movie is its attention to the small cadre of electric car devotees who followed their dearly beloved cars to the bitter end. These include several B-grade celebrities, yet the most memorable advocate is an unknown, a bright, fresh-faced young woman named Chelsea Sexton, who worked at GM during the EV development years, and who still has the spark in her eye and the ring in her voice of a True Believer. Some are likely to find Chelsea intensely annoying; others, inspiring. How you to react to her, and to her fellow EV acolytes, is likely to reflect how you react to the movie’s bottom line. I’ll confess I was sold. I yearn for the electric cars I never knew. And now I feel merely sad, not puzzled, whenever I pass one of the innumerable signs for “electric vehicle charging stations” that still dot the southern California driving landscape. Some day, perhaps, we’ll find a use for them again. Here’s hoping, anyway. GRADE: B+

ONLY HUMAN (Seres Queridos)

written and directed by Dominic Harari and Teresa Pelegri
starring Guillermo Toledo, Marián Aguilera, Norma Aleandro

Another quirkily dysfunctional family movie, but this one takes place in Spain. The premise: independent-minded Jewish girl brings home Palestinian fiancé to meet her family, whom she hasn’t yet told about his ethnic background. The roster of eccentric family members this time includes a nymphomaniac belly-dancing older sister; a younger brother who’s recently gone super-observant, much to the annoyance of the rest of his family; an ancient grandfather and ex-Israeli army man who doesn’t let his blindness get in the way of wielding shotguns in the house; an absent father who may or may not be having an affair; and a mother who’s just plain eccentric. The strenuously madcap “Only Human” plays like a Neil Simon comedy on speed, and seems to be trying a bit too hard to keep the laughs coming. Nor does it have anything particularly insightful to offer on the theme of Jewish-Palestinian rapprochement. Still, at its best moments it’s really quite funny, and overall succeeds in rising above its “guess who’s coming to dinner” formula. GRADE: B/B-


written and directed by Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland
starring Chalo González, Jesse Garcia, “and introducing” Emily Rios

I never thought I’d see a movie that managed to be about both gentrification and immaculate conception, but here it is. “Quinceañera” follows the coming-of-age of Magdalena (Rios), a teenager growing up in the Hispanic community of Echo Park, Los Angeles, in the year leading up to her fifteenth birthday. In short order, Magdalena discovers she’s pregnant despite the fact that she’s technically a virgin, faces down the wrathful disbelief of her devoutly religious father, and moves in with her saintly great-uncle Tomas (González). Tío Tomas’s quarters are small, and he’s already taken in another family refugee—Magdalena’s cousin Carlos (Garcia), banished by his father for his budding homosexuality—but no matter; Tomas’s heart has room for all. Meanwhile, Tomas’s landlords—a well-heeled thirtysomething male couple—move into the upstairs unit and paper it over in Westside designer-chic. They take a shine to Carlos and make him their boy toy, but the three-way affair soon turns into a precarious love-triangle. Ultimately, Carlos’s sexual awakening exacts a high price, one that’s tied in with the film’s other pervading theme: the hip-ifying, yuppifying, and whitewashing of a neighborhood that was once an impregnable stronghold of Latino immigrant culture.

This all sounds rather serious, even gritty, but in fact “Quinceañera” is as sentimental and feel-good a dramedy as you’re likely to see this year. Perhaps too much so; one senses that its cozy picture of the Latino community is drawn by outsiders who share more in common with the interloping landlords than the homegrown tenants they’re crowding out. Still, the cast is warmly appealing (Rios in particular turns in a remarkably nuanced debut performance), and the filmmakers deserve props for their thoughtful depiction of a neighborhood in cultural transition, and for spotlighting a vibrant area of L.A. that Hollywood routinely overlooks. GRADE: B/B-


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