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The rubber meets the road 

Two Sundance hits: one with too much Hollywood and the other with just enough

click to enlarge Abigail Breslin, Toni Collette, Steve Carell and Greg Kinnear in Little Miss Sunshine - PHOTO BY ERIC LEE, COURTESY OF FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES
  • Photo by Eric Lee, Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
  • Abigail Breslin, Toni Collette, Steve Carell and Greg Kinnear in Little Miss Sunshine

The most surprising thing about Little Miss Sunshine is how bad it is. After all, the cast includes low-key straight man Greg Kinnear, the unerring Toni Collette, the droll Steve Carell and, as the girl who would capture the crown named in the film's title, a talented 10-year-old named Abigail Breslin.

Furthermore, this film, co-directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris from a script by first-timer Michael Arndt, was the toast of Sundance, winning the coveted, if unofficial, designation of "this year's Napoleon Dynamite." That is, this year's feel-good, moneymaking comedy about losers who ultimately triumph. Although movies such as these can be very satisfying, I tend to raise my defenses when it comes to comedy romps about lovably dysfunctional clans (hello, Cheaper by the Dozen). Still, with an excellent cast that also includes Alan Arkin and Paul Dano (the kid from L.I.E.), I went into a screening last week with as positive an attitude as I could muster. Nonetheless, I left the theater 100 minutes later absolutely baffled by what the Sundance crowds had responded to.

I'll devote only a couple of sentences to the film's facile characterizations (the potty-mouthed and priapic grandpa, the sullen, Nietzsche-mad teen son and--that old standby--the gay uncle) and recycled comic situations (from sources as varied as National Lampoon's Vacation, Weekend at Bernie's and any movie in which a kid takes a big risk at a talent show). Nor will I waste many words on the plot, in which a loser family, headed by Kinnear's chief loser Richard Hoover, a failing professional motivational speaker, packs his brood into a dying van for a road trip across the desert to California where his cute-but-definitely-no-Jon-Benet-Ramsey daughter hopes to win a preteen beauty contest.

Instead, I'll point out that the movie has set the dramatic table with familiar types and situations, but has served a dish that is bland, half-baked and derivative. At the film's outset, Carell's gay academic has just attempted suicide over a series of professional and personal humiliations. Having been given a backstory, the character undergoes no further development beyond joining the Sunshine caravan as an increasingly perky cheerleader. Similarly, the comically angry teen-age son played by Dano has taken a vow of silence, which, thanks to a highly unlikely development, dutifully comes undone midway through the film. And when an allegedly important character dies, his demise seems to resonate with the survivors for no more than the screen time it takes for them to dispose of the body. Ultimately, this is the kind of movie in which out-of-control vehicles smash through the lowered gate of a parking lot toll booth--not once, but twice. Only in Hollywood does this happen, and even there it's not funny.

On a certain level, Little Miss Sunshine is a perfectly fine family movie, abetted by a sterling cast. (Breslin, who was a knockout in Lodge Kerrigan's virtually unseen Keane, is a marvelously intuitive performer who is shaping up to be the next It Kid in American movies.) It's understandable that some audiences may respond to the film's portrait of an overmatched family pulling together against the odds, in brutal desert heat, in a vehicle that doesn't run in first or second gear, to fight uphill battles against adversaries who, unlike us, seem to have their shit together. In other words, Little Miss Sunshine is the kind of movie that Hollywood should be making without effort or fuss every month or so.

Why is this film an indie film, then? Is it the Devotchka on the soundtrack, or the fact that Dayton and Faris, the film's co-directors, are a husband-and-wife team making their feature debut after a long career making television commercials and music videos? Is it the fact that the film's resolution--otherwise a botched finale that tries and fails to replicate the showstoppers in such better movies as About a Boy or Napoleon Dynamite--doesn't solve all of its characters' problems in one fell swoop?

Three of the film's stars--Kinnear, Carell and Breslin--were on the cover of last week's issue of Entertainment Weekly with the headline "How a Sundance indie became a summer surprise." But there's not much of a surprise. In all the important ways, the film resembles a Hollywood movie, which is why Fox Searchlight paid $10.5 million for the rights to it at Sundance. They're clearly banking on getting their money back, and they're probably right.

Thankfully, there's another Sundance hit coming our way this weekend. Who Killed the Electric Car? won't do the business of Sunshine, but as an urgent cry of environmental outrage, it was one of the strongest docs in Park City. It also makes a fitting and practical companion piece to the festival's highest profile doc, An Inconvenient Truth.

After I saw this film in January, I realized that I don't want to support hybrid technology with my next car purchase. The gas/electric compromise is a technologically irrelevant step sideways, a way for automakers and oil companies to continue to squeeze gasoline purchases out of us. Indeed, the inevitable next step has arrived: Crafty hybrid owners are retrofitting their cars to run on the batteries all the time. In essence, they're jerry-rigging something that was on the market for a brief few years in California: the EV-1 from General Motors.

click to enlarge A funeral for the EV-1 in Who Killed the Electric Car? - PHOTO BY MATT BOHLING, COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
  • Photo by Matt Bohling, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
  • A funeral for the EV-1 in Who Killed the Electric Car?
In 1996, a small fleet of EV-1s was unleashed in California as a response to a state-mandated electric car target. The new cars were light, sporty and fast, and they eventually were able to travel 120 miles per battery charge. But a strange thing happened on the way to striking a blow against the terrorists. General Motors seemed reluctant to support its own product, and meanwhile, the state agency that had issued the original mandate was coming under extraordinary pressure to reverse course. Despite the pleas of its drivers, General Motors began recalling its cars (all of which were leased) and destroyed them.

First-time filmmaker Chris Paine was an EV-1 owner, and he considered the demise of the car tantamount to murder. He began looking for a culprit and uncovered a fascinating history of the technology. It turns out that the early automotive engineers were hard at work on electric alternatives, and there were such vehicles before 1920. His film is filled with interviews with visionary engineers, car historians (including Dan Neil, late of the Raleigh Spectator and now a Pulitzer-winning reporter for the L.A.Times) and the expected dissembling corporate flacks. Since the EV-1 was a California car, Paine is the lucky documentary-maker who gets to have movie stars in his film. Among them are Mel Gibson, making a serendipitously rehabilitative appearance (except for a crazy beard), Alexandra Paul, who played the smart lifeguard on Baywatch, and Martin Sheen, who supplies the narration.

Who Killed the Electric Car? is the rare documentary that supplies News You Can Use. One wouldn't know from typical media reports that the electric car is a technology that is ready for the road. Instead, we're given breathless reports about hybrid SUVs that will achieve fuel efficiencies in the mid-20s, and we're told that hydrogen fuel cells are the future--the distant future, that is. With any luck, Paine's indispensable documentary will help make common knowledge the viability of electric cars at a time when we could use a convenient truth.

  • The most surprising thing about Little Miss Sunshine is how bad it is.

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