Little Miss Sunshine is a good example of an enduring Hollywood sub-genre – Dysfunctional Families. Its setting is not Thanksgiving, but a road trip to California, where the youngest of the family is to take part in a beauty pageant for six year olds. The dramatis personae has more than its quota of oddballs, the road trip is one long misadventure, and the ending provides some sort of resolution for most of the major characters.
Consider the characters for a moment: One (Steve Carrell) is a gay Proust professor who attempted suicide when his grad student and lover dumped him for another Proust scholar. Another (Greg Kinnear) runs self-help sessions on being successful — I don’t need to tell you that the sessions themselves are nowhere as successful. Yet another (Paul Dano) is a high school student who reads Nietzsche has taken a vow of silence until he gets into flight school. And then there’s the barmy old coot (Alan Arkin in an Oscar-winning turn) who got expelled from an old age home for heroin abuse. His logic: When you’re young, you have to be crazy to do it. At his age, you have to be crazy not to. And holding this bunch together is a woman (Toni Colette) whose continued sanity ought to win her some sort of prize.
And in the midst of all this, there’s a little girl preparing to enter a beauty contest. When the movie opens, you see her staring at the TV screen in rapt attention, studying the reactions of the woman who just won the Miss USA pageant. She’s a pudgy sort of girl with oversize glasses, and but doesn’t lack in confidence. This is a fantastic performance by Abigail Breslin, whose sweetness and good cheer anchor this movie.
In fact, her performance turns out to be the single most crucial factor in making the climactic sequence work. While there is much in this movie to smile about, the talent show in the beauty pageant right at the end is the high point. The movie does set it up with little hints along the way, but never really gives away the surprise. But having a six year old dance to the Stripper theme? And using it as an exercise in family bonding? It is a scene so audacious in its conception, yet so perfect in its execution that you are left wondering how they managed to pull it off.