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Little Miss Sunshine = Little Miss Average

Recently, I attended an advanced screening for Little Miss Sunshine which will have its wide release next week. The screening was at Canada Square, that enclave of "alternative" film fare. What was unusual, no...surprising about this advance presentation was that the directors attended and what wasn't asked of them.

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris were available for Q&A after the show and gave the expected insight into the processes and struggles behind the development and production of Little Miss Sunshine. One question went unasked that night, perhaps because Torontonians are really as polite as the stereotype suggests. The question I was waiting to pose was "Why did Dayton and Faris make such an abhorrent movie?"

Yes, abhorrent. Little Miss Sunshine is the latest in a recent trend of "indie" films that trip up over an endless presentation of idiosyncrasies, character quirks and oddball events all mashed within a cloak of mediocrity. What upsets me is that the wrappings are disguised as cutting edge and "hip" cinema but, really, what audiences are getting is an affirmation of the status quo.

Films like Garden State and Junebug began this trend wherein the bonds of family are upheld as the pinnacle of goodness. Such movies order us to love and respect our relatives even if they're mean, nasty, selfish or just plain stupid. The characters in Little Miss Sunshine are a motley crew of morons but the audience is supposed to cheer and love them because, by the end of the movie, we are subjected to that ancient (and lazy) moral lesson that blood is thicker than water. [Gag!]

In LMS we have: the harpy mother (Toni Colette); the dad (Greg Kinnear) who preaches endlessly to his children about being a "winner" because losers, well, they suck; the precocious 10 year old (Abigail Breslin) who is so wrapped up in her own existence that she can easily ignore even the basic needs of her family if they conflict with her own desires; the gay, suicidal uncle (Steve Carell); and the foul-mouthed grandparent (Alan Arkin). The latter was especially bad; didn't Ruth Gordon make obscenity-spewing octogenarians cliche 30 years ago?

The only character who isn't a stereotype is the brother (Paul Dano). He's excellent as the apathetic teen who's taken a vow of silence that will only be broken once he enters military flight school. The character stands out just because he's so different from the cookie-cutters that represent the rest of his family. But even he falls into the pit of triteness by movie's end.

Okay, so the family sets of in a VW van to California so that the daughter can attend the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. That's all you need to know about plot. It's a family road move without the energy and gut-busting laughs of National Lampoon's Vacation.

Do hi-jinks and family friction ensue? I'll be a stone-faced motorcycle cop if they don't. Vehicle problems, seedy motels, meal-time antics, elderly preaching...it all rolls out as if from a supermarket checklist. And of course, that obligatory cop shows up, right on cue.

I was grinding my teeth as this soft chestnut wheezed toward the inevitable family bonding conclusion. I have no doubt that this movie will not make waves at the box office yet will "find an audience" on DVD and will eventually be upheld as an (overrated) slice of inoffensive Americana. "It's endearing!" is what seemed to be the general consensus at the show I attended.

Yet no one in the theatre but me seemed to care that the directors had just fed us a 100 minute serving of pablum. Dayton and Faris weren't taken to task for their bland offering; instead, there was much praise and love tossed from the balconies (okay, there aren't any balconies at Canada Square but you get what I mean). Are Torontonians adulation whores in the same manner as people in L.A. are whenever faced with even a smidgen of celebrity? I hope not because it took a half dozen showers to wash away the unclean feeling I had that night.


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