Quirky, sweet-and-sour American comedies often become contemporary classics when they bring wit and humanity to settings too often merely caricatured, like teen beauty pageants in Smile (1974) and a fundamentalist-Christian high school in Saved! (2004). Little Miss Sunshine, the hit indie comedy of the summer, has links to both films. Like them, it's a tangy slice of dark Americana. But its final act unfolds in a setting even riskier for comedy or drama, especially these days: the Little Miss Sunshine contest, a prepubescent beauty pageant.
When Little Miss Sunshine opened a month ago, the killing of JonBenet Ramsey was not yet back on the front page. It's a testament to the movie's humanity and quality that even with the case returning to headlines, the film's conclusion is still far more funny than creepy. When I interviewed the co-directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris in July, and mentioned how unsettling it was to see little Shirley Temples who looked toned, Faris blurted out, "How do they create those bodies?" Dayton added, "We felt this was an area in which we should tread carefully. We've all seen the documentaries; this community has been pummeled. So we didn't want to add to the editorializing. Our role was to present it accurately and let people draw their own conclusions."
A pageant saluting glamorized notions of beauty offered a perfect counterpoint to the film's celebration of messy, improvisational families. "It was undoubtedly a great backdrop for the story we were going to tell," says Faris; "The ultimate stage on which to ... have the issues active in the story come to a head," says Dayton.
But precisely because, as Faris puts it, the subculture was "the most insane place for these characters to end up," it was also critical that it be portrayed in a truthful way. So the filmmakers resolved that they would shoot the pageant sequence in near-documentary style. They decided to employ real pageant people and real girls and real moms and let them in on the story.
"No one read the script," Dayton explains, "but we went to great lengths to explain it and the context of the pageant within the story."
These girls "were really the cream of the crop," Faris says. That was crucial because the filmmakers wanted Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin), their slightly pudgy, bespectacled young heroine, "to be out of her league, certainly" when it came to glamour, "even if ultimately her [inner] beauty does come through."
Explicating the movie to the pageant families, the filmmakers told them (in Dayton's words) "this is the story of a family who have a favorite little mutt dog and are going to take this dog to a dog show because it is so cute. But once they get there, they find all the other dogs are pure-bred and coifed and raised to perfection and know how to prance." The families glommed on to that immediately.
"We didn't want to editorialize," says Dayton, "but we didn't want to pull any punches."
Dayton and Faris hark back to an underrated classic of humane light satire, Smile, the late Michael Ritchie's comedy about a "Young American Miss" contest in the northern California town of Santa Rosa. Near the film's beginning, one teen contestant displays her singular "talent" - packing suitcases. When the suitcase-packer lets her luggage fall apart only moments later at an airport, you realize that the poor girl saves her talent for the competition the way athletes conserve strength for a big game.
The Young American Miss pageant isn't exploitative; it's a cross between a game show like Truth or Consequences and a Go-America pep rally. The girls parading for prize money aren't degraded by their stage turns; they are, to some extent, con artists, like most of us when we are too old to obey adults unthinkingly and too young to escape them.
You can't always gauge the girls' sincerity, which makes you sympathize with them all the more when they perform their ridiculous routines in the name of God and country. Many of them just want the prizes.
Only one of them is an incorrigible cheerleader; whenever she smiles, she shows three inches of her gums, and at one point she explains that as a Mexican-American, she feels special about Santa Rosa "because it is Spanish for Saint Rose." Annette O'Toole, Martha Kent on TV's Smallville, plays the sassiest girl. She wonders why, if boys earn football scholarships, girls shouldn't get something for being cute and charming.
Little Miss Sunshine also shares a link to another, recent terrific American comedy: Saved!, which savaged a fundamentalist American Eagle Christian High School but displayed affection for even its most rabid zealots. Though filmed in Vancouver, it was set in Baltimore County, where director Brian Dannelly grew up, and it was edited by Pamela Martin, who did Little Miss Sunshine, too.
The movie is about breaking out of closed-belief systems - bulging out, actually, since the heroine, Mary (Jena Malone), questions her faith after she gets pregnant. Possessed by an evangelical impulse to prove to her boyfriend that he isn't gay, she makes love to him once - and it works only biologically. The director rouses furious laughter from the looking-glass absurdity of the religious ultra-right, whether Mary is hoping that she has a cancer instead of a fetus, or her former best friend Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore) is coining the phrase "You're not born a gay; you're born again." But what makes the movie stick is Dannelly's respect for his characters and his knack for igniting his actors.
Indeed, in their death-defying tightrope walks across perilous American environments, what all these movies prove is the eye-opening, redemptive power of openhearted comic art.
To listen to podcasts featuring Michael Sragow, go to baltimoresun.com/sragow.