Moving Pictures
May 21, 2024, 06:28AM

Women, Like Men, Should Get Oscar Nominations for Mediocre Movies

Little Miss Sunshine and a breakthrough of sorts.

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Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Little Miss Sunshine is the first film directed by a man and a woman together to win a Best Picture Oscar nomination. It’s not really remembered for that reason, and perhaps that’s as it should be. Like Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, the last film by a woman director to get a Best Picture nod, Little Miss Sunshine is an modestly-budgeted indie film which eased into its awards spot by reproducing familiar conventions rather than by defying expectations.

The story’s focused on a quirky family, the Hoovers, and their dysfunctional dynamics. Sheryll Hoover (Toni Collette) is harried but (as is often the fate of wives in these exercises) doesn’t have any particular schtick. Her brother Frank (Steve Carell) is a gay Proust scholar living with the family after he attempted suicide; the grad student he had a crush on spurned him. Sheryll’s husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a would-be success guru who keeps failing (get it?). Richard’s father Edwin (Alan Arkin) is devoting his declining years to porn and hard drugs. Son Dwayne (Paul Dano) has decided not to speak until he succeeds in enrolling in the Air Force Academy. When daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) gets into the finals of a beauty contest, they all pile into a disintegrating bus to get to California and watch her compete.

If you’re ever seen a quirky indie comedy, or a sitcom, the action’s predictable. The bus is going to break down; the character you think is marked for death is marked for death; Dwayne has a big moment where he starts talking again.

The top-notch cast makes up for the lack of surprises, delivering their laugh lines with zest and their moments of catharsis and self-realization with conviction. But it’s Breslin as Olive who gives the movie its moments of real genius. Her awkward, innocent enthusiasm is calibrated to tug every heartstring. The scene where she nearly jumps with delight when Miss California assures her that pageant models also eat ice cream is worth about a thousand Alan Arkin old-people-still-like-sex jokes.

Even Breslin can’t really change the fundamental mundanity of the “idiosyncrasy” on display, though. Coppola’s not my favorite director, but she has a polished, distinct visual style and an eye for composition that gives her films a striking, polished, intentional look. In contrast Little Miss Sunshine looks like it could be a television sitcom from the 1990s. Earlier films by women directors like Penny Marshall’s Awakenings, Randa Haines’ Children of a Lesser God, and Barbra Streisand’s The Prince of Tides tended to be melodramas centered on disability. That’s its own kind of cliché, but, for better or worse, those movies had a sense of urgency and importance.

Little Miss Sunshine, then, may be the first movie by a woman director to get an Oscar nomination that doesn’t really seem to be trying for an Oscar nomination. It’s a comfortable, unthreatening film that seems to have gotten the nod through sheer feel-good ingratiation—rather like Mark Johnson’s The Holdovers from this year’s best picture nominations.

Like Johnson, a lot of mediocre male filmmakers have their movies nominated by the Academy because they happen to check the right boxes, or because they have one standout performance, or just through chance. In that sense, Little Miss Sunshine can be seen as a kind of milestone, in that a woman director managed to get the Academy to honor her movie for its adequacy in the same way that many male directors have been honored for adequacy in the past.

Little Miss Sunshine isn’t great, but a lot of movies get Best Picture nominations (and Best Picture victories) without being great. More of those, like Little Miss Sunshine, should be directed by women.


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