This agreeable low-key comedy is an independently-produced movie about a seven-year-old little girl’s quest to be a winner, especially in children’s beauty contests and similar events. She manages to win a local contest and gets the right to enter a children’s pageant in California and so the family, somewhat reluctantly, sets off in a cranky old VW microbus across the country.
Although it has its moments, this is not the normal Hollywood-style setup, punch line, setup, punchline, setup… kind of movie. I described it as ‘low-key’ because it is a far gentler kind of humour, even though a bit risque at times. I didn’t find it offensive, but maybe a small minority might. Much of the movie goes on without any jokes as such. Indeed the first 20 minutes of the film are somewhat serious, as the characters are gradually introduced to us, including uncle Frank who has just managed to survive a suicide attempt after a colleage beat him to top place in the Proust scholar stakes, and substance-snorting foul-mouthed grandpa who also happens to be coaching the little girl Olive in her dance routine for the show. Olive’s father is trying to promote his 9 step program for winners, not too successfully. Mother is trying to support her daughter and run the household. Perhaps she isn’t so obsessed with winning. Older brother Dwayne is though. He wants to be a pilot and has taken a vow of silence until he can achieve his goal.
The characters really make this film. We have quite a motley crew of flawed human beings and they get along with each other badly, as any semi-functional family of obsessives might. As a result a lot of the humour is based on their interactions, and this is really well acted, particularly by the less well-known actors.
In many humorous films, the actors act in a jokey way, unable to avoid signalling that they are in a humourous mode, but not here. Instead, the acting is very naturalistic, with the characters taking themselves very seriously, making the whole thing far more believable. Olive, played by Abigail Breslin, does a particularly good job, as does Toni Collette as her mother. However, all the family were great.
So what’s it all about? Winning and losing seems to be the theme. Father thinks that winning is everything, yet he is a loser himself (perhaps this is why he’s obsessed with winning). Uncle Frank the Proust scholar can’t stand being second place in the academic rankings. Older brother Dwayne has to become a pilot. Olive has to win the pageant. In the end, coarse-mouthed Grandpa probably has the most balanced view of things: the only losers are those who don’t even try.
It seems little Olive understands this idea too, ultimately. Her entry in the children’s pageant causes quite a stir but she is not in the end concerned with whether she won or not.
I would give this movie a good 7 out of 10 overall. It is a fine, warm-hearted family comedy. Sensitive parents may want to preview it before allowing children to watch it, but it has a good message in the end.