9 August 2008

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (Dir. Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, 2006, US) - Dysfunctional American Cinema & The Road Movie

If a so called ‘indie’ film makes over $100 million at the box office does this mean than that film is no longer independent anymore but now part of the mainstream? Such was the case with ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, a film that declared itself as being independent, showing up at the Sundance Film Festival to immediate acclaim and then being suddenly snapped up by Fox Searchlight Pictures in an expensive distribution deal. It surprised the industry even more when the film went on to make over $100 million. ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ was deemed a sleeper hit as the film relied greatly on positive word of mouth and critical reception to generate interest. Many critics were sceptical about the film’s claim to being an independent production when considering how the term ‘indie’ today is used as a cynical marketing tool by the studios to promote ‘alternative’ cinema to the YouTube generation.

These days, to label a film as an independent can be somewhat of a risky proposition when you think about how audiences have become intellectually self aware of the manipulative nature of marketing, and how studios repeatedly re-appropriate film terms so that they come to stand for something entirely oppositional and guided by commercial motivations rather than artistic ones. Even today the term ‘independent cinema’ usually conjures up characteristics we associate with world cinema films; low budgets, location shooting, improvised dialogue, intense characterisation, specialist audiences. Any of the films directed by John Cassavetes tend to be singled out as definitive illustrations of what a real and authentic American independent film should look and sound like.

Even though it was shot on a relatively low budget of $8 million, it is still deeply problematic to categorise ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ as an outright independent film because a true independent film would rarely have access to the kind of far reaching and aggressive marketing strategies used by the major Hollywood studios when promoting a new film that they hope can achieve some degree of commercial success at the box office. ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ like ‘Juno’ showed up just about everywhere in the mass media, with Fox using the multiple media platforms to make audiences aware of the relative coolness of these artistically credible films which they were desperate to be associated with for reasons purely to do with prestige and commerce. It seems as though once Fox had bought the distribution rights for ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, it suddenly ceased being categorised as an independent film aimed at a specialist audience, and transformed into just another studio property and devalued product. Luckily, Fox Searchlight only bought the rights for distribution, and had the film been financed by a major studio then perhaps the final shape of the film would have been altogether more conservative and formulaic.

Aside from the questions regarding the film’s status as an independent film, husband and wife team, Dayton and Farris, take great joy and warmth in making ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ into one of the best road movies in recent years. Though no one film nation can lay claim to the creation of the road movie genre in its entirety, American cinema and Hollywood in particular have been hugely influential in helping to develop conventions, themes and imagery that have become an intrinsic part of how we perceive the genre today. Besides, the vastness of the American landscape continues to be a source of inspiration for many road movies, with the narrative of the endless journey and the untold destination working as a means of driving forward an episodic story in which we encounter an alternate reality, one that seems to offer some degree of comfort and escape from the trappings of a deeply consumerist society.

The road movie as an existential voyage of self-discovery is what transpires in ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ as a dysfunctional American suburban family are forced to share a battered yellow VW van, making a journey across America so they can get to the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant taking place in California. Obviously, no road movie would be complete without it’s fair share of mishaps and problems, many of which are a result of patriarchal anxieties displayed by Richard Hoover’s (Greg Kinnear) deluded self help guru who eventually realises that personal success has no relation to self worth and his role as a parent.

The influence of contemporary American filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson is becoming much clearer and evident in recent cinema, and this is no better illustrated than in the first few minutes of ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ as the little girl, Olive (Abigail Breslin), who longs of competing in a beauty pageant, stands gazing at the television set, seduced by the guilt free pleasures of escapism and self identity it offers to a society of individuals built on false needs and vacant aspirations. As Olive gazes, we hear Devotchka on the soundtrack, and slowly, Dayton & Farris offer us delightfully playful snapshots of each of the characters who are shown to be facing some kind of personal ‘crisis’ that seems can only be solved through glib psycho therapy. The influence of ‘Magnolia’ to the opening of ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ is present in the use of a ticking clock soundtrack and inter cutting that shifts leisurely between different characters, creating a narrative momentum that is intensely involving.

Dayton & Farris seem very critical of the superficially plastic and artificial reality of today’s American society as symbolised in the grotesque and devalued nature of the Little Miss Sunshine beauty competition, an event that is represented as if it was taking place within an entirely alternate universe. With a riotously uplifting ending, ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, closes on the image of the open road, a motif and image that sums up the essence of a genre indebted to the legacy of subversive films like ‘Easy Rider’, ‘Vanishing Point’ and ‘Two Lane Blacktop'.

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