DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEW of Little Miss Sunshine, The OH in Ohio, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

 

Title:  Little Miss Sunshine

Release Date:  2006

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: 101 min

MPAA Rating: R

Distributor and Production Company: Fox Searchlight / Big Beach

Director; Writer: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris; wr Michael Arndt

Producer:

Cast:   Greg Kinnear, Abigail Breslin, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin, Toni Collette, Steve Carell

Technical: Full anamorphic 2:3 to 1

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL site:  satire, complementarity

 

A movie that starts with an allusion to those old Miss America pageants in Atlantic City, Bert Parks and all, and our smug ideas of womanhood and family friendly femininity, is rather like a symphony that starts on an accidental and then modulates. Richard (Greg Kinnear (“As Good As It Gets”) is giving his nine-step motivational speech to his sparse audience, and he is not supporting his dysfunctional family too well. But it opens things up for comedy quickly at the dinner table.

 

Frank (Steve Carell, “The 40 Year Old Virgin”, man-o-lantern, and Saturday Night Live host who brags that he has made it in the world) is a gay literature professor whose face looks alternatively youthful and wasted. He has tried to slit his wrists when a graduate student didn’t requite his love. Little Miss Sunshine Olive (Abigail Breslin) says, “What? You fell in love with a boy? That’s silly.” This is the famous scene in the previews and trailers. Dwayne (Paul Dano) is a (by self-imposition) mute 15-year-old who has sworn to silence and who communicates with handwritten notes. He reads Nietzche, and writes “I hate everybody.” But that is because everyone around is a loser, and he is forced to associate with them, to like them, to fight for their goals, rather than his, which is to become a military pilot. So we get to a central issue for the film’s satire: the problems centering around “seeing people as people” and accepting them in, rather than going down one’s own personal path.

 

Wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) forces Frank to sleep in the same room as Dwayne, and Dwayne is supposed to watch him. That’s an odd situation, to put an unstable middle aged gay man in the “protective custody” of an attractive (and very fit) underage teenage boy (Dano is 21).  Perhaps Sheryl has no other realistic choice, as Frank cannot safely be left to be alone; furthermore, Frank is her brother, her own flesh and blood, demanding loaylty. Yet nothing really comes of that, as the film must move quickly into real comedy. The comedy is foreshadowed by growling grandpa (Alan Arkin) when he snorts cocaine. Later, at a critical scene when Dwayne breaks down (below), however, Sheryl is not willing to leave her son in the desert with Dwayne when Dwayne wants to abandon the trip.

 

It is a challenge for the screenwriter to structure the story around sections and critical transitions, and to present the characters with almost insurmountable problems. This appears to be Arndt’s first film, and indeed he comes up with devious comic ideas—all with double social meanings that almost no one else (except maybe Ashton Kutcher) could think of. The family goes on a road trip in a yellow “vancredible” from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, CA. where Abigail will enter the pageant. This misadventures pile up. The clutch fails, so the family has to start the car while moving in a team handbook exercise.   Then, in the first motel night, Olive finds grandpa dead, and they have to steal the body, Hitchcock style, from the hospital. More revelations will come, and Dwayne will be forced out of his silence when Olive makes a brutal but simple discovery that shows that Dwayne will never be medically qualified to be a military pilot. (Politically, this comports with the military’s argument supporting the DADT ban – life just isn’t fair, and a lot of people are excluded.) Finally they lumber into the contest, and Olive (and let us note that the film has shown her to be a bit plump) pulls off an act that gets the whole family arrested. She has dance moves, all right, and they are a match for Napoleon Dynamite’s. (Jon Heder could have been in this film, I think; but Dano is able to give a role like this an unusual bite; compare Dano in this film to his work in "The King" where he leaves a similar impression.)  Is it really “obscene” or even offensive? No. But as Dwayne points out (once he is talking), the contest is run by creeps, as Dwayne suddenly is ready to protect his little sister.
 

What a ride! The film is vicious satire, and some people say they were offended by some of the insuations of the film.

 

The credits give a Gregory Smith as a unit director, but (imdb) that is a different Gregory Smith from the young actor (who has an acting style similar to Dano).  This film should not be confused with the historical epic "Sunshine."

 

The arrest of former schoolteacher John Mark Karr in Thailand for the murder of JonBenet Ramsey in Colorado in 1996, shortly after the opening of this movie, seems like an odd coincidence, considering that the girl had performed in child pageants.

 

The New York Times has a two part series "Dark Corners" about the legality of partially clad minors in the media, Aug. 20, 2006. See the comment at this link.

 

The OH in Ohio (2006, Cyan/Ambush, dir. Billy Kent, 88 min, R) is a quirky regional comedy taking place in "the Mistake by the Lake." The Buckeye State is where the midwest begins, but it is far enough east (above Georgia) to be well into the Eastern time zone. Oh, OK, Cleveland has had a comeback, with gleaming new skyscrapers, the condos and discos in the flats, and Jacobs Field, for the Indians, all of which appear in this widescreen movie. (Oh, recently, the Indians whacked the Royals there 13-0, scoring 11 times in the first inning). The park looks pretty interesting. And so do some of the imaginary things, like swimming pool salesman Danny Devito and his waterslide. Priscilla Chase (Parker Posey) has a job bringing companies to the New Cleveland (which, like Baltimore, is not missing) and is married to a biology teacher Jack (Paul Rudd, who looks just a little pudgy). Jack is having a relationship with an 18-year-old (thankfully) student (Mischa Barton). He sleeps in a garage apartment. So Pris goes on an adventure of her own, to explore her own sexuality in the most primitive terms, using all kinds of toys, experimenting with lesbianism.  In the meantime, Jack's self-discovery actually leads him to consider renting an apartment in The Manly Arms, of all places. The experimentation becomes contagious. The talk is graphic, but what the camera shows is not. Some of the scenes don't till the 2.3:1 screen. 

 

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (2007, Dreamworks / Revolution / Image Movers, dir. Jane Anderson, book by Terry Ryan, 99 min, PG-13). There really is a Defiance, Ohio, not too far from Toledo. In one early scene of this movie, in the 50s, the family with ten kids sits around a kitchen radio just like I used to in Kipton (near Oberlin) and listens to the last batter in the bottom of the Cleveland Indians's ninth strike out with the bases loaded as the Indians lose to Boston at home, 3-2, in old Municipal Stadium, wire outfield fence and all, the Mistake by the Lake. In those days, though, when the Indians one 114 games and had Larry Doby and the Big 4 Pitchers, northern Ohio was the best location in the Nation. But this movie shows how the Rust Belt was going to crack. Woody Harrelson is Kelly Ryan, the alcoholic breadwinner, and in this world dedicated to obligatory heterosexuality and Catholic procreation (sort of like "Days of our Lives") it's hard to make ends meet. Wife Evelyn (Julianne Moore) argues with the milkman (they really delivered milk in bottles those days) and admits that he is a much better person than she is because he never reneges on his bills. She has too many children to feed. This gets into that "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs...."  that we made fun of at Ft. Eustis in Nixon's Army. Then, when she gets milk on credit, in an argument, she trips and falls and spills it all.

 

The kids all have to learn family responsibility. There is one baby, and this is the first time I remember seeing a soiled baby in the movies like this. The sister really wants to learn how to change the diapers. That is the tone of the movie.

 

And Evelyn is a writer. She enters the contests of jingles, that get judged in New York by English majors. The jingles talk about all those wively accoutrements of the 50s and early 60s, even to the point of glorifying an iron lung. So we get set up for her structured creativity to pay off.

 

The screenplay is very linear, and does provoke a focused rooting interest in Evelyn, with the "just in time" denouement of winning a jingle contest--lifting her and ten kids out of lower middle class poverty into the good life. (The epilogue tells us what happens to each of the ten kids; two of them actually tried major league baseball with the Detroit Tigers.)  Her husband seems as essentially a loser, caught up my society's competitive and intimate expectations of men and not able to live up to them; unexplained is why they fell into social conformity so quickly, other than a lack of freedom or knowledge to do anything else. 

Related reviews:.  The 40 Year Old Virgin   The Squid and the Whale  As Good As It Gets  Napoleon Dynamite   Sunshine   The King

 

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