By Ray Pride
“Little Miss Sunshine” is a comedy of embarrassment, mortification, fear and that means, of course, family.
Greg Kinnear plays a failed motivational speaker; Toni Collette is the wife who bears his depressions; their teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano) fancies himself a Nietzsche devotee and has sworn himself to silence; grandpa Alan Arkin remains randy, rude (and R-rated) while encouraging bright young Olive (Abigail Breslin, wide-eyed with goofy innocence) in her dream of winning the “Little Miss Sunshine” pageant. Enter: depressed, suicidal gay uncle Steve Carrell, America’s number one Proust scholar, who’s just lost his younger lover to America’s number two Proust scholar. A cross-country jaunt in a yellow VW van and dysfunctional comedy conniptions ensue. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, video veterans (Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight Tonight”) with two children of their own, working from a script by Steve Arndt, render something of a suburban nightmare that’s sneakily funny, quirkily paced and intelligently observed, leaving room for some superbly vulgar moments (with condescension reserved for the families of the less down-to-earth “LMS” contestants).
Unlike some contemporaries of the pair, such as Mark Romanek, who design videos and features (“One Hour Photo”) into chilliness, there’s amiability to their characters’ frustrations and the spaces they move through. “Yeah, yeah,” the 49-year-old Dayton says, one trademark porkpie hat on his head, the other on an end table next to him. “That was definitely the balance—”
“Messy order,” Faris, 47, adds, in the kind of easygoing, sentence-finishing, work-and-live-together charm the couple radiate.
“Yeah. And we certainly didn’t want it to look like it was too designed but we also wanted to limit the color palette so that there would be a little bit of esthetic pleasure—“
“It’s like a certain memory, I like it when you think about the film the colors come back, [certainly] the yellow [VW] bus. It was red, turquoise and yellow—“ Faris counts off.
“The house had a certain brown. Warmish brown—“
“Wood tone—” he adds.
“I think the color was the most conscious, intentional thing, but it was also important for us to keep it messy, to mess the place up. It could have been even more!” she says.
He recalls, “When you arrive at the house, the first shot, y’know, there’s some piece of clothing on the floor—”
“A doll,” she says. “I remember just throwing it [on the floor]. [Our production designer] did a great job. When you see a film? Things don’t land in these places! It drives me nuts! I always feel somebody’s placed something! It’s definitely a little pet peeve. And it’s not a good thing to focus on when you’re shooting! It’s really not what you want to be thinking about.”
Even some documentaries look contrived if the shooter’s not aware of the surroundings. “Isn’t that weird? It looked like you’d created it all? Yeah. That’s a very funny thing,” Faris says. “We’re also now… documentary… I have such a distrust now of documentaries because everything’s called documentary—
“So fast and loose with the term,” Dayton says, doffing one hat. “Or vérité.”
“There’s a pleasure, though, when you know it truly wasn’t affected and seeing how much life—”
“That’s really where our initial interest in film is from,” he says, “from that kind of thing. For this movie and really what inspired us both as filmmakers early on was ‘The American Family,’ the [influential 1970s] PBS series. We watched episodes of that at UCLA, because it’s not available on DVD. Unfortunately.”
“In preparation for this, we would just go and watch them,” she says.
“We hadn’t seen them since they were on television when we were growing up,” he says without a pause, “and it was just so incredible to watch those, that period of documentary filmmaking, those were so instructive in terms of the pacing and the silent… there is just so much silence in that [series].
Faris continues, “I think there’s a good movie to be made about when [the sister] makes this trip to New York to visit Lance and he says he’s sick and she thinks she’s going to help him, she’s worried about him, that he’s sick? And he ends up seeing how depressed she is and it ends up being more about him helping her. It’s just beautiful—there are these long silences, the cab waiting to pick up her to take her to the airport back to LA, and they just both sit there.”
“Any other filmmaker would have cut out twenty minutes,” he says. “Voiceover playing,“ she says. “Music playing,” she says. He says, “But the silences!” “It’s just the most powerful—and there’s another scene with the mom and her mother, where they sit and have lunch, and it’s all silent, there’s only a few words here and there,” she marvels. “It’s so powerful. Those two episodes [of that series] just blew us away. This film is so different from that, but what we liked about it was that there was silence in it, in a comedy.” Smiling, he says, “In a film!” “To really display some of silence,” she says.
“Little Miss Sunshine” opens quietly on Friday.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.