WASHINGTON--Critics usually view MTV as the scourge of movies because its influence has spread flashy editing and splashy colors for their own sake and a reckless disregard for lucid and cohesive storytelling. But Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who came to MTV in the early 1980s, when they were fresh out of UCLA and the music channel was just getting rolling, represent MTV at its best and brightest.
In 1983, they saw the chance to do The Cutting Edge, an interview and documentary-based MTV series, as a grand experimental opportunity, and then moved on to craft videos that explored with sympathy, nuance and imagination the visual components of performance. In a field where no one was yet an expert, they trained a humanistic glance on their favorite musicians. They became long-term partners, spouses and parents along the way.
Their experience bears homegrown-exotic fruit in their debut film, Little Miss Sunshine. It's all about the madcap Hoover clan: a would-be self-help guru dad (Greg Kinnear), his game, long-suffering wife (Toni Collette), a hedonistic grandpa (Alan Arkin) and a visiting uncle who's a suicidal Proust scholar (Steve Carell). Along with strong, sullen teenager Dwayne (Paul Dano), they join forces to get young Olive (Abigail Breslin) from Albuquerque, N.M., to Redondo Beach, Calif., in time to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant.
It's the rare contemporary comedy with painterly eyes -- four from the directors, two from their cinematographer, Catonsville native Tim Suhrstedt. They find the poignancy and humor in compositions that advance or illuminate the story and fix it in your mind. And they turn what could have been another dysfunctional-family art house extravaganza into the saga of a functional family.
As Dayton says, "these characters don't avoid their differences, they confront them, and they tend to tell the truth."
Interviewed in a Washington hotel room, Dayton and Faris speak with appreciation and respect for each other's voices. Despite reports to the contrary, I found they don't interrupt a train of thought to finish each other's sentences. When you put what they tell you together, you realize they do complete each other's paragraphs.
Dayton says, "What's been powerful for us is the value of seeing a film in a theater, because making videos or commercials we never sat with an audience." Faris adds, "The most rewarding thing is that we made and cut the film to please ourselves, so when it seems to reach other people, too, it's so amazingly gratifying. It makes us want to do more."
It took more than two decades for this team to make a feature, but once it did, Faris says, "It reminded us of why we got into this business in the first place. We love going in a dark room and going somewhere for an hour and a half. We want a movie to be an experience for people, not just an intellectual exercise." She believes audiences will find it easy to identify with the Hoovers' ups and downs: "They're identifiable, not so far from an average person's life. Even though these people are eccentric, their struggles are like our own."
Dayton: "We actually loved that all these characters have a very clear longing for something." Faris: "The mother wants to create this harmony in her family ... but it's almost impossible because everyone has these almost impossible dreams."
Rather than characters strapped into service to the plot, the Hoover family members, in Dayton's words, "are reaching beyond the limits of this particular three days. They have greater goals and are in life for the long run. Steve Carell doesn't come in and signal, 'I'm here to serve the quirky uncle role.'" As Frank, whose love life and career are both in ruins, Carell lives in a world of hurt that Dayton says "we all know."
Cinematographer Suhrstedt, on the phone from Los Angeles, says the team's easy intimacy blessed the whole production. Suhrstedt used a handheld camera to shoot the actors crammed into the Hoovers' Volkswagen bus. Even in the van's close quarters, Dayton and Faris would lie flat on the car floor, scanning the video monitor. "You just couldn't split them up," says Suhrstedt.
At one point, in D.C., Faris declares something plain yet profound -- "I always feel that every sentence should be ended with, 'for us'" -- and Dayton erupts with explosive laughter filled with affirmation and affection. After all, Faris continues, "That's the only way you can judge a piece like this -- whether the characters mean something to you. They were very lifelike for us; if we didn't believe the characters were real people, for us that wouldn't work." It's an unpretentious statement of purpose: What unites them is a joint sensibility.
Suhrstedt saw that at work on the set. When he would notice them standing apart, sharing a smile, he knew they had thought of just the right angle to take on the next scene.
Carrell, Kinnear and Suhrstedt were close to their Los Angeles homes as the movie roamed the Southern California freeways, and Alan Arkin's son, Adam, was in Los Angeles, too. Dayton and Faris felt that part of what made Little Miss Sunshine such a happy shoot is that so many members of the production, including the directors, had families in Los Angeles, the movie's base. Dayton and Faris are the parents of twin boys, 10, James and Everett, and a girl, Augusta, 13. "It was great to remain a parent through the process," says Faris. "We were having so much fun, I think they could feel we were happy in our work."
Maybe something in the couple's genes also meshed with the material. Faris' grandfather had been an electrician for MGM on The Wizard of Oz and David O. Selznick on Gone With the Wind; her father was a sound editor on MGM's Tom and Jerry cartoon series. Just as intriguing, though, is that her grandmother and great-grandfather and Dayton's grandfather were in vaudeville.
With Little Miss Sunshine, they create a thing of laughter and beauty out of the baggy-pants burlesque of contemporary family life. In vaudeville days, they would have been headliners.