Cauton: Spoilers ahead!

The little movie that could … and that may, indeed, become an Oscar dark horse… is winning many and varied responses from film critics I know and respect. Here are a few different reactions and thoughts…

J. Robert Parks of Framing Device:

What’s especially impressive is how true to life this all rings. In an early scene, the family scurries around the kitchen, fussing with each other as they try to get dinner on the table, and it reminded me of my own childhood years. There are also the inevitable family disagreements and irritations, as three generations struggle to coalesce. Soon, we realize that the hustle and bustle is a way of avoiding the awful silences, the moments when people are afraid of what they might say or hear.

But the movie isn’t some disillusioned attack on the suburban family. Instead, it achieves what few comedies can–a balance of tone. The slapsticky moments give way to scenes of genuine pathos, the stinging satire is offset by the warm camaraderie. The characters snap at each other as relatives do and get underneath each other’s skin, but there’s also a deep undercurrent of affection.

Jason Morehead at Opuszine:

All of the characters’ foibles are simply there to drive the plot forward, and maybe generate a few giggles (or winces) along the way. There aren’t any characters in the film, only caricatures.

Perhaps Little Miss Sunshine‘s biggest failing is that it isn’t quirky enough.

However, the Hoovers of Little Miss Sunshine clearly exist within the “real” world … and so their quirks become even more obvious and generated, manipulated to be as strange and indie as possible.

And sadly, the eventual (and predictable) resolutions lack the sense of joy and healing, the dramatic “oomph”, that they could have had otherwise. Rather, they feel perfunctory, lightly tossed off so that the movie can get back to the quirks and oddities, or rather, its attempts at the quirks and oddities, all the while winking at the audience, hoping that folks don’t realize how cliched it’s become.

Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin of Cinema in Focus:

The caricatured dysfunction of the Hoover family gives “Little Miss Sunshine” a comical appearance. But when we stop laughing and consider the people, we are confronted with painful personal and spiritual emptiness.

The broken-down van which carries this broken family becomes the vehicle to pull them together to push themselves on down the road. But it isn’t California or the pretentious beauty pageant that is their true destination. It is finding some dignity in their humanity and love in their family.

And… as noted earlier… Barbara Nicolosi of ACT ONE: Writing for Hollywood:

…it involves a family in which the father is an ambitious jerk. The mother is an impotent whiner. And, OF COURSE, the only really compassionate, intelligent and caring member of the family is the gay uncle Frank, who is recovering from having slit his wrists. (And he is the sane one.)

I found during the movie that the audience was laughing at moments in which the family’s shame was particularly exposed. The humor was to point at the people in the family and sneer, “What an assh*le!” or “What a hypocrite!”

I feel absolutely sure that a legion of critics – and certainly Christians! – will passionately defend this film. They will relish its “fresh satiric critique ” of post-modernity. They will say things about how wonderful it was for the family to end the film accepting each other in a stirring moment of loyalty and love. They will say that this movie is clearly just not my kind of taste, and that engaging culture means that we shouldn’t get stuck on little things like vulgarity, profanity, crassness and the exaltation of meaninglessness.

They will be absurd. Swallowing camels of human degradation and straining out gnats of “niceness”.

Pass on Little Miss Sunshine. It won’t make you a better person. It won’t make you love your neighbors more. It will fill your spirit with cynicism and sneering. Pass. Pass. Pass.

So… what did I think of it?

I believe in these characters the way I believed in the characters of Pieces of April. I feel like I know these people. I know families like this. Sure, they’re an outrageous and tempestuous and perverse crew of people, but so are a lot of families I’ve met. I laughed not to sneer, but in painful recognition of just how blind, self-absorbed, and audacious people can be.

They were real to me. And kudos to the cast for making such a motley crew of extreme personalities convincing as a family. Each actor was dead-on. Steve Carrell continues to amaze, and Alan Arkin still has it after all these years.

But when the movie reached the Big Sad Twist, I said to myself, “Oh dear… if this goes where I think it’s going, I’m not sure I’m buying it. That can happen in Vacation, but not in this movie’s world.”

And when they did go there… that outrageous “sneak the big heavy bundle out through the hospital window” scene… I didn’t go with them.

Then, there was the encounter with the twisted policeman. Nope, sorry, not buying it. Something like that can happen in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas-world, with that scary Gary Busey cop, but I just didn’t buy it here, in this world. It felt like they’d mixed up their chocolate and their peanut butter. The wackiness was too wacky to exist alongside the pathos, which seemed so real.

And it just went downhill from there. The characters… love ’em. Would follow them anywhere. The events? They just get too zany and madcap. We’re talking Raising Arizona stuff. In the Coen Brothers world, I could suspend disbelief. But Pieces of April and The Big Lebowski are two different kinds of movies, and what works in Lebowski-land just seems too implausible for Pieces of April land.

By the time little Olive starts into her show-stopping number, I was straining to hold on, but the film had gone off the rails for me.

Still, I’d see it again for the performances. I’ve met people like these… I’ve even met families like these… I’ve spent my share of time in Roswell and Albuquerque, New Mexico, and in Mount Shasta, California, where you’ll find all kinds of families that stay together by some kind of spectacular chance, each person off in their own wild orbit. (Well, hey, I live in Seattle, and if I threw a rock I’d hit a member of a family like this.)

No, this is not a movie that’s dragging us through the gutter with some outrageously sick agenda. It’s an honest exploration of whether or not a family like this is redeemable in an American culture that sets them up to feel like failures and losers. If I lash out at a movie because the characters behave perversely, I’m training myself to respond to people in the real world that way too. I’ve met families more broken and misguided than this… and yet, they stay together… out of need, even though they’re accustomed to being judged and avoided by the pious.

And as far as that goes, I found Little Miss Sunshine entertaining, amusing, ironic, sobering, and even touching. The child pageant scene was meant to be horrifying, and it was. And that’s what really happens, as the resurrection of the JonBenet Ramsey spectacle has reminded us. (There’s so much focus on that sick, sick man who claimed to have raped and killed her. But why isn’t anyone talking about how the Ramsey family practically baited sexual predators by turning their daughter into a sex object and parading her around?) Olive’s number was over the top and shocking, but her approach is a slight exaggeration of the norm that should serve to wake us up to what’s really happening there. It reminded me of the episode in South Park when the mothers all take their girls to the cute S&M costume shop because it’s the new back-to-school fashion. It’s stretching the truth in order to draw our attention to the truth. Flannery O’Connor, hit ’em with a sledgehammer, shout at the deaf culture, etc. … this is it.

It’s not for all audiences, no, but it’s an admirable effort.

In the end, though, I just couldn’t believe in them. Too much wackiness mixed with characters I feel like I could walk down the street and talk with.

I look forward to the next film by this husband/wife director team. Their hearts are in the right place, and they know how to work with actors… a rare and formidable combination.

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