- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 18, 2007

It is, or used to be, a truism in Hollywood that movies released too early in the year don’t stand a chance, come Oscar time, against the prestige films that flood the holiday season.

The spring 2005 release “Crash” rattled that assumption last year when it won the Academy Award for best picture. But since it was ignored in every major acting category as well as for best direction, observers suspected “Crash” was merely a fallback choice for academy voters wary of “Brokeback Mountain’s” homosexual cowboys.

Last summer’s brilliant indie-movie-that-could, “Little Miss Sunshine,” which seemed as though it was falling victim to the dictates of end-of-year hype and, accordingly, disappearing from critics’ radar screens for much of the fall, is now being touted as a best-picture nominee — a possibility that would erode further the notion that attracting Oscar attention is more about timing than artistic worth. (Nominations will be announced Tuesday.)

As Billy Bob Thornton once put it in an interview with me, the backloading of Oscar contenders is akin to the disadvantageous placement of stock cars in a NASCAR race, where drivers who start at the back inevitably struggle to make it to the front. “If awards really do mean something, then why don’t we make them mean something all year long?” Mr. Thornton, an Oscar winner, lamented.

“Little Miss Sunshine,” a contemplative comedy about the troubled Hoover family’s road trip from Albuquerque, N.M., to a prepubescent girls’ beauty pageant in Los Angeles, has been nominated in top categories by the Writers Guild of America and the Directors Guild of America, and snagged a Golden Globe nomination for best musical-or-comedy.

Even with a little breeze at its back, however, “Little Miss Sunshine,” directed by husband-and-wife duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and written by Michael Arndt, all three first-timers, faces an uphill battle — as evidenced by its loss to the flashier “Dreamgirls” at this week’s Globes ceremony.

The movie was generally well-liked by critics (with favorability ratings of 92 percent and 80 percent, respectively, at critical aggregators RottenTomatoes.com and Metacritic.com). Yet, like recent thinking-man’s comedies “Lost in Translation” and “Sideways” before it, “Little Miss Sunshine” may have been too, well, funny to pass muster with academy voters who have long favored heavyweight dramatic statements or grandiose spectacles over human-scale meditations.

Moreover, some outlying reviewers have slighted “Little Miss Sunshine” for an over-reliance on calculated quirks. “Sorry, folks, but these are not organic characters; they’re walking, talking catalogs of screenwriter index-card data,” pronounced Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman.

And an astute commenter at the New York Times’ seasonal Oscar blog “The Carpetbagger” noticed several thematic parallels between “Little Miss Sunshine” and the beloved, though considerably less admired, “National Lampoon’s Vacation” — the narrative arc of a road trip, the comedic device of a malfunctioning vehicle and the transport of a dead, elderly relative.

To my mind, the movie’s use of screwball comedy tropes doesn’t diminish its originality; rather, I think it puts it in the tradition of the great Hollywood classics of the 1930s and ‘40s.

That’s not to say the movie’s detractors don’t score their points. “Little Miss Sunshine” is far from a flawless work of art. Yet, in dismissing what was perhaps overly familiar about the movie, these critics missed what was truest about it, namely, the psychological costs of living in a meritocracy that rewards unequally distributed talents, and in a media culture that deifies beauty.

The filmmakers treat this theme most obviously in the excruciating story line of young, lumpy, bespectacled Olive Hoover (played with tender understatement by 10-year-old Abigail Breslin) and her quixotic hope of becoming a Southern California junior beauty princess. The loving, if highly improper, encouragement of her grandfather (Alan Arkin) seems only to shelter her from the truth of the world.

It’s emphasized, too, in the motivational-entrepreneur character of Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear, in a career-best performance). While shuttling his family to L.A., he faces ever-bleaker career prospects, seemingly disproving his conceit that a positive state of mind will guarantee success.

Steve Carell’s suicidal Proust scholar exists in a more rarefied atmosphere of literary academia, where marketplace competition is just as fierce — and where failure feels more like personal betrayal, precisely because the competitors are so few.

Finally, there’s disaffected teenager Dwayne (Paul Dano), who aspires to be an Air Force pilot but discovers in the course of the story that he’s colorblind, an otherwise minor defect that here becomes the cruelest of natural disqualifiers.

“Little Miss Sunshine,” at its core, is a movie about dashed hopes — which probably means that, of all contenders this Oscar season, its creators are well-girded for an unhappy ending.

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