The beauty pageant has been fodder for comedies before, though largely in a peripheral fashion. The exceptions, like “Drop Dead Gorgeous” and “Miss Congeniality,” have been moderate successes, possibly because most of America already realizes what a joke the contests are in the first place (as the plummeting ratings of things like the Miss American pageant attests). And if adult beauty pageants haven’t been a frequent source of hilarity, then the children’s equivalent has hardly ever been used (not counting the Pre-Natal Beauty Pageant sketch on HBO’s “Mr. Show,” of course).
“Little Miss Sunshine” attempts to rectify this. Ostensibly the story of 7 year-old Olive Hoover as she and her family attempt to make their way from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach for the titular contest, the film is really about her entire clan and their individual struggles. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris use the trip as a means for the dysfunctional family to come to terms with their own shortcomings.
I know, hardly an original concept. In movies, the road trip is always a good way to reconcile familial differences and grow together as a unit. In real life, they tend to exacerbate fractious relationships. To take the movie’s example, you couldn’t throw together the suicidal Proust scholar (an understated Steve Carell), the wannabe self-improvement guru (Greg Kinnear), the Nietzsche-worshipping teen who also happens to be a self-imposed mute (Paul Dano), and the heroin-snorting grandfather (Alan Arkin) without ending up with the kind of book usually found in the True Crime section at Barnes & Noble. This is the movies, however, and screenwriter Michael Arndt, along with Dayton and Faris, have taken this “dramedy” and infused it with a rare humanity amidst the gay porn jokes and corpse gags.
While there’s little doubt this ragtag group will somehow manage to complete their quest, it’s the journey that offers the most enjoyment. Well, that and the beauty pageant climax, which I won’t spoil here, but is one of the funniest scenes from film in recent memory.