“When all professions are open to all, and when one can reach the summit of each of them by oneself,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about American democracy in the 1830s, foreshadowing the massive crisis in status anxiety that would eventually compel us to buy Hummers and use phrases like “new paradigm” with a straight face, “an immense and easy course seems to open before the ambition of men, and they willingly fancy that they have been called to great destinies. But that is an erroneous view corrected by experience every day.”
In “Little Miss Sunshine,” an ordinary, middle-class family has erroneous views corrected by experience the hard way. Over the course of three harrowing days on a road trip, reluctantly embarked on so that their daughter may compete in a children’s beauty pageant, the Hoovers come face to face with the cruel limits of their dreams, opportunities and possibilities. One by one they fail, despite their best efforts, their sincere desire to succeed and their many merits as people. In this way, the rambunctiously modest and unassuming comedy, which was acquired by Fox Searchlight at Sundance for a record $10.5 million (though you almost hate to mention the amount, given the moral of the story), is as ambitious, honest and subversive as any American movie since “Election.”
The Hoovers live in Albuquerque in a modest, wood-paneled tract house where dinner means chicken from a bucket. But they are consumed by fantasies of success that keep them locked in their separate worlds, struggling to measure up to impossibly high standards. Even their name is aspirational -- they effortlessly hoover every message put out by a monolithic, inherently antihumanist mass culture.
Having devised a nine-step motivational program called “Refuse to Lose,” Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear) dreams of Tony Robbins-esque success but has so far only succeeded in burying his personality under a heap of irritating catch-phrases and driving his family crazy. His Nietzsche-reading stepson Dwayne (Paul Dano) has fashioned himself into a do-or-die superman by taking a vow of silence until he can fulfill his dream of getting accepted into the Air Force Academy. Grandpa (Alan Arkin), using what experience has taught him about winning and losing, has embraced hedonism late in life and gotten himself kicked out of his beloved retirement home for snorting heroin. Seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin), who is chubby, awkward and unself-consciously weird, spends her time rehearsing her Little Miss Sunshine talent routine and practicing her victorious meltdown in front of the television.
Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), the foremost Proust scholar in the United States, has been sent to stay with the Hoover family following a suicide attempt after the graduate student he loves runs off with the second-most-renowned Proust scholar in the nation.
Meanwhile, his sister Sheryl (Toni Collette), who is married to Richard, keeps the family afloat financially, but is at a loss as to how to keep them from falling apart.
Given the precariousness of their financial situation and the shaky emotional states of Dwayne and Frank, the Hoovers find themselves with no other choice but to travel to California together in their old VW bus. Before they’ve made it out of New Mexico, the clutch gives out, making it impossible for them to keep going without pushing the car, chasing it and hopping aboard like freight-hopping hobos as it barrels forward at full speed. Needless to say, the bus is a speeding, ramshackle symbol of you name it -- the reckless endangerment demanded of average people by a winner-takes-all culture, a society coming apart at the wheels and, of course, the rickety ethos of a generation that forever cemented rule-breaking individualism with ostentatious material success. What keeps the characters -- and the vehicle -- from feeling as arbitrarily schematic as characters in a sitcom is that writer Michael Arndt and directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton understand how all of the characters have carefully constructed their identities from noncompatible, mass-produced kits. Consumed with becoming, the Hoovers are literally not themselves.
Told as a picaresque road trip, “Little Miss Sunshine” employs razor-sharp humor and a deceptively realistic style to satirize a corrupt society that heroes of low status must navigate by their wits alone. The movie is exceptionally well cast with actors whose faces betray their humanity with every indignity they suffer (and there are lots of them, each funnier than the last).
Carell gives a wonderfully wry and sensitive performance as a defrocked and humiliated eminence who ultimately learns to find solace in his subject -- the epically morose but insightful Marcel Proust -- rather than the external symbols of academic achievement. (Those will be handed, in a neat and tidy bundle, to his smarmy competitor Larry Sugarman.)
But Kinnear, in particular, is heartbreaking as the picaresque hero straddling the line between his adopted role in society and the stigma of being himself, as he really is.
“Little Miss Sunshine” hilariously punctures the grotesque bubble of the competitive American spirit in which “winners” are recognized by their rigorous ability to conform to the standards imposed by the market, and “losers” include anyone who won’t bow to its mighty will.
Watching a terrifyingly robotic emcee sing “America the Beautiful” to a gaggle of 7-year-olds tarted up to look like midget prostitutes, Richard squirms with recognition, his face collapsing under the pressure. You can almost see the scales falling from his eyes.
The problem with the Hoovers is not necessarily that they’ve failed at the paths they’ve chosen but that society has pointed them down a series of blind cul-de-sacs and then handed them the blame for their own unhappiness.
Which is really funny, when you think about it.
‘Little Miss Sunshine’
MPAA rating: R for language, some sex and drug content
A Fox Searchlight Pictures release.Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Screenplay by Michael Arndt. Producers Marc Turtletaub, David T. Friendly, Peter Saraf, Albert Berger & Ron Yerxa. Director of photography Tim Suhrstedt. Editor Pamela Martin. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.
In select theaters.