From the Archive — Letters from Iwo Jima


Last week, I dug out the old review for Clint Eastwood’s The Flags of Our Fathers. It’s time for his follow-up. Since I initially took the occasion of revisiting these reviews of Eastwood films to call into question some of the more overt veneration of his skills as a director, I now feel obligated to add that this effort nabbed a reasonably secure place on my top ten list for the year it was released. 

Well it’s a damn sight better than Flags of Our Fathers, I’ll say that.

The companion to director Clint Eastwood’s earlier film about the battle of Iwo Jima shifts the perspective from the American soldiers who charged onto this little chunk of land in the Pacific to the Japanese fighting men who held their fingers on triggers as they sat in tunnels dug into the hillsides, poised for a battle that they knew was hopeless. Eastwood was trying to cover a lot of ground with Flags, drawing in the carnage of war, the impact of images, the calculated use of heroic veterans to bring in enough money to keep the wheels of war turning, the trauma of adapting to live on the homefront again, and the far-reaching legacy of World War II. In Letters From Iwo Jima, Eastwood largely concentrates on the battle itself, both the preparation on the part of the Japanese and what happens when the bullets and bombs start to fly. By doing less, he achieves more.

Maybe the greatest compliment that can be paid to Eastwood in this instance is to note that Letters doesn’t feel like a movie made by an American director about a different culture. It has none of the condescension or leaden exposition that often drifts into the most well-meaning of features. Instead, Eastwood’s film truly seems immersed in the lives and ideologies of these men it depicts. For instance, the cultural norm that self-inflected death would be more honorable and preferable to facing defeat at the hand of the Americans is illustrated dramatically in several effective and harrowing moments, but Eastwood is clear-eyed about it. He passes no judgment on this men, and also offers no overt explanations for their actions. This is simply how it was, and he shows it to with the quiet assurance that he has conveyed their lives and their world effectively enough for it all to make sense.

That’s not to say that Eastwood implies a uniformity of belief or vision among these Japanese soldiers. A great strength of this film is that he commits to highlighting the individuality of these men, often in very subtle ways. Every man who pulls a pin on a grenade or aims his rifle has a different reaction to the situation he finds himself in. For every man who screams “Banzai!” with conviction, there is another who does it will heavy reluctance, and then a small fleet who stand at different points on the spectrum between those two reactions. These contrasts aren’t especially highlighted by Eastwood, simply captured by his camera. As always, he brings a great restraint to his film-making. Moments that other directors would inflate with bombastic music and technique, Eastwood lets play out with the flatness of real life. In letting a Japanese soldier read aloud the words of a dead American G.I.’s letter from home with no score accompaniment, for example, the film finds a fresh power in that moment. For a moment, it feels like it may not be a movie construction after all, but a legitimate piece of the wartime experience, the discovery that the enemy’s letters read a lot like your own.

As admirable as Eastwood’s approach may be, it has its downside, too. Like many of his films, the careful pacing occasionally becomes too languid. When you want the film to start moving more briskly to its conclusion, Eastwood keeps it at a gentle amble. That leaves time to further admire the performances of Ken Watanabe as the Japanese General overseeing the futile stand on the island or Kazunari Ninomiya as a soldier who values self-preservation over death-with-honor, but it also gives you time to check your watch and start thinking about what to have for dinner.

It’s hard to be too critical of that, however, as it really is a marker of Eastwood’s style. And when that style can yield unique accomplishments like Letters from Iwo Jima it seems a fair compromise.

From the Archive — Flags of Our Fathers


Clint Eastwood has a new film out. It is not being especially well-received. In general, I’ve long found the movie critic discourse around Eastwood’s directorial career to be a little perplexing. I’ve liked many of his films, including proud placement of a few on various lists of laudatory accomplishment. But to refer to Eastwood as one of the great filmmakers (I remember at least once critic, circa Mystic River, positing that Eastwood was the greatest American director then working) requires turning a blind eye to a lot of flawed material, even if one generously ignores the absolute worst efforts. I think many critics keep projecting layers of intriguing subtext that simply isn’t there. They believe Eastwood is making statements, though the man himself insists he just makes movies. Arguably, the strongest illustration of the gap between the myth of Eastwood’s artistry and the actual expression of it came in 2006, when in quick succession he delivered two different films about the Battle of Iwo Jima, each from an opposing perspective. One film worked, and one didn’t. This week and next, I’ll excavate my original reviews.

In adapting the the non-fiction bestseller Flags of Our Fathers, director Clint Eastwood is arguably making the most conventional important and serious-minded film of his career. From Play Misty For Me on, Eastwood’s films as a director have always had a sort of pulpy feel. Even his two Oscar winners, Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, are immersed in the sort of from-the-gut storytelling one associates with the old school rough and tumble publications that employed the likes of Raymond Chandler and Louis L’Amour, guys who pushed away from the typewriter after rapping out story with dirt under their fingernails. This isn’t to suggest that Eastwood is out of his depth with this World War II drama because his lacks the artistic maturity or nuance to handle the material. Instead where he gets lost is in the script’s disjointed construction. There’s essentially two different films here and Eastwood simply can’t bring them together. The other characteristic of those old pulp stories is that the were unrelentingly straightforward. That’s the kind of filmmaker Eastwood is, but that’s not the kind of film Flags of Our Fathers is.

The book was written by the son of one of the men in the famous photograph “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima”, one of the most iconic images in American history. His story kinda-sorta shows up in a framing sequence in the film. In the early portion of the film, Eastwood includes moments of him interviewing people about the image, the soldiers and the battle of Iwo Jima. Those brief exchanges are intercut with scenes set in the battle itself, the journey of the photograph through the American consciousness and the halls of government and the celebrations of the men captured on film. Throwing everything out there at the beginning and letting the rest of the film catch up to all the elements that have been introduced is not an especially rare technique, but it’s one that’s new to Eastwood filmmaking toolbox, and he has simply lacks the touch to pull it off. The film opens as a muddled mess, more baffling than compelling.

As noted before, it basically settles down into two different films: the Battle of Iwo Jima and the experiences of the three surviving soldiers from the photograph after they are pulled from their active duty to stump for war bonds because the funds to finish the war are not there. When Eastwood is training his camera on the bursting war itself, the film is surprisingly weak. It doesn’t help that the dusty, bleached cinematography inevitably recalls Steven Spielberg’s superior Saving Private Ryan, but even without the comparison, Eastwood rarely achieves any coherence with his storytelling in these moments. That clumsiness keeps the emotions of the battle itself at a distance. For the most part, if guns are cracking and explosions are bursting on the beach, Flags is floundering.

The film fares better when it turns it attention to men after they’ve returned home, perhaps because this is where Eastwood finally seems to be saying something fresh. As soon as the photo hit the front pages of newspapers from coast to coast, the military knew they had a public relations coup, the sort of simple patriotic image that would give them the needed boost of homefront morale to finish the job overseas. The soldiers were now enlisted in a different battle, moving between big city rallies and gala parties getting celebrated as heroes and raising desperately needed funds in the process. Just daring to note the last just war almost bankrupt the nation is a little bit of boldness from Eastwood, as is the depiction of the crass exploitation of the men, the way they were summarily discarded and forgotten once they’d served their purpose. Still, there’s generally a flatness to the characters themselves. Ryan Phillippe’s “Doc” Bradley is a quiet cipher, the eyes of the audience, a reduced to bland passivity. Jesse Bradford is stuck with exactly one trait to play as proudly glad-handled Rene Gagnon. Only Adam Beach gets a full-fledged, juicy role to play with Ira Hayes, a Native American soldier whose emotions are desperately close to the surface. Beach responds with a fiercely dedicated performance.

Eastwood’s most effective tribute emerges during the closing credits. He gives us the photos of the real men, simple snapshots of proud, worried soldiers staring directly into the camera, or wounded men being helped across the battlefield. At the end, it cuts to a shot of the memorial that currently stands on the island of Iwo Jima where the flag once flew and the camera drifts off to view the black sand beach from a distance, the carnage long gone, the machinery of the war absent. In that quiet moment, that gentle gesture, Eastwood does more for those men and that place than the rest of his muddled film can muster.

From the Archive — Pan’s Labyrinth

mignola pan

Look, I’m well aware that the only movie anyone cares about this weekend is set quite some time ago in a galaxy that’s a significant distance from ours. Ideally, I’d devote this weekly exercise in excavation to an relevant piece of old writing, but everything I’ve ever tapped out about the franchise in question had already appeared here. I’d rather dig up some writing about an older Rian Johnson joint, but those reviews have similarly already appeared here. Instead, I’ll offer a bit of a forecast of a different new movie review that should bubble up here this week. While it’s been covered in one of my best-of-the-decade countdowns, I haven’t yet transferred over my original review of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Until, you know, now. Back when this was first posted — in my former online home — I was still using mildly relevant song lyrics to headline the reviews. I’m pleased to report this one was presented under the banner “Don’t tell me truth hurts, little girl, ’cause it hurts like hell.”

Director Guillermo Del Toro is, first and foremost, a visual artist. His film carry a common denominator of carefully constructed frames marked by fantastic imaginings, and these are the things that linger in the memory after seeing the film: the smoke plume of blood flowing from a head wound in The Devil’s Backbone, the perfectly realization of Mike Mignola’s comic book world in Hellboy, even the creature unfolding itself and its secrets in the process in the underrated Mimic. The emphasis on the images is never at the expense of the story, exactly. It’s just that the stories don’t carry as much richness as Del Toro’s imaginings made as real as film can make them, so the progress of the characters becomes a sort of afterthought.

So it seems a perfect match for Del Toro to craft a fairy tale, a type of story that practically begs for comforting simplicity, where unexpected marvels naturally carry the weight. The new film Pan’s Labyrinth is indeed a deep, dark fairy tale, but Del Toro also takes the enduring purpose of fairy tales as a hopeful charge into a land more wondrous than their own and dramatizes it. For many children, the fairly tales are simply an escape for the plainness of their own experience, where they world grows disappointingly smaller with every day and every new discovery. For others, it a far more necessary escape, a safehouse away from a grim, dangerous home. This is the case for the protagonist of Pan’s Labyrinth, a ten-year-old named Sofia.

The film takes place in Spain in 1944, during the beginning of Franco’s despotic rule. Sofia arrives with her mother at the home of her new stepfather, a military leader fighting off a local rebellion while dispensing clumps of bread to the citizenry with the begrudging benevolence of a fickle deity. He’s a vicious man, which Sofia’s mother, pregnant with his child, tolerates because there are few other options for her. Sofia seeks refuge in the strange world revealing itself in the great stone labyrinth on the grounds of the estate. There is a faun that promises her she is the lost princess from a mystical land, and a quest involving an oversized amphibian, a mysterious key and an enchanted chunk of chalk.

For all the charm it holds, Pan’s Labyrinth is a dark, uncompromising film. The military captain father, played with focused menace by Sergi Lopez, is no cardboard villain, but a font of malevolent rage, his self-perceived power manifested through explosive violence. The movie is not gory in the way of the new splatter renaissance but the frank violence Del Toro puts on screen is more affecting in its purposefulness. Every moment that’s hard to watch is there for a reason beyond making the audience squirm; Del Toro is establishing levels of danger and brutality that are more disturbing that that jolting gushers of blood that populate lesser films.

Del Toro has made a film that is a paean to the powers of imagination. It’s a splendid testament to the inventions of a wandering mind, even when those inventions scare us a little. It’s a terrific film, bathed in the muddy colors of dusk and yet bright with the splendor of unfettered inspiration. It is unmistakably the work of its director, from the soothing growl of its storybook opening narration to its brave, beautiful ending.

From the Archive: Jesus Camp


Writing about Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God the other day got me thinking about this earlier documentary that shows another side of the way religion and zealotry can be leveraged into callous exploitation of youth. This was originally published at my former online home.

The freakiest moment in the new documentary Jesus Camp comes right at the beginning. We see a sort of performance, seemingly in some church’s multi-purpose room. There’s a young boy whose face is painted with camouflage makeup stomping rhythmically atop a riser, beating together long batons in time with a soaring, anthemic song plays and a little battalion of girls in leotards before him match his movements. It’s like something out of “Lord of the Flies: The Musical” as staged by Julie Taymor. It sets the tone perfectly. These are children being trained for war. That’s metaphorical, but just barely.

The film is about Evangelican Christians and their overt efforts to drag America towards being a Jesus-loving nation in accordance with their belief systems. It frames it all with the efforts of Becky Fischer, a cheery zealot who focuses on indoctrinating the youth (because they’re giving kids hand grenades in the madrasahs in Pakistan, after all), running a bible camp where the kids are brought to hear scary (to me) lectures about the sinners that need saving, the genocide brought on by Roe v. Wade and the evils of Harry Potter. It’s a place where the pre-teen campers are worked into such emotional frenzies over their love of Christ that they start sobbing and speaking in tongues. They cheer joyfully when asked if they’d be willing to lay down their lives for their saviour. Jesus sucker-punched me and it felt like a kiss.

The film posits that this is a concerted effort, a tactical assembling of Christian soldiers to march ever onward. To a degree the film makes a compelling case, if only because the glassy-eyed stares of the most fervert proselytizers seem so impenetrable. The greater this clan gets, the more problematic it’s going to be for us heathens.

And yet the film’s not wholly successful, largely because it follows that current trend of documentary filmmaking that involves gathering plenty of footage on a fascinating topic and slapping it together into something shambling and shapeless. It remains fairly effective when it focuses on the camp itself, but the film falters when it heads down (admittedly relevant) sidetracks to a mega-church or a Washington demonstration. These stretches may help the film reach feature-length but they don’t deepen the story, even if there are some scattered telling details that the camera captures. There’s good material, but it doesn’t really serve this film.

Even more problematic is the inserted footage of radio personality Mike Papantonio sounding off on Evangelicals on his show, the camera prowling the studio, catching the bright green modulation waves on a Cool Edit Pro computer screen in a desperate attempt to make the broadcast visually exciting. The bigger issue (albeit the one that doesn’t give me a chance to snarkily show off about recognizing the radio station’s audio software) is that Papantonio’s editorializing seems stagey and forced, a cheaply calculated way to insert a dissenting voice into the film. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are experienced enough (they made the much-admired The Boys of Baraka) to let the material they’ve filmed unspool without added commentary. The voices that are already in the film are speaking loud and clear.

From the Archive — Richard Linklater films


On the occasion of Last Flag Flying, the new Richard Linklater feature, arriving in theaters — at least in New York City — here are, I believe, all of the reviews of the Texas filmmaker’s work that I’ve written, but that haven’t previously shown up in this digital space. While there are plenty of titles in Linklater’s filmography that would cause me to offer breathless raves, all of these are lesser, deeply compromised efforts. Of course, in the case of most of these, Linklater was also in the extended process of making a flat-out masterpiece, so I give him a pass on these varied misfires.

Tape (Richard Linklater, 2001). Released the same year as Waking Life, Linklater’s trippy foray in animation and dream analysis which perfectly suited his penchant for talky philosophizing, Tape is comparatively small-scale. Without any specific comparison, it’s bland and unimpressive. Adapted by Stephen Belber from his play, the whole movie take place in the confines of a dingy little motel room as two old friends wage a battle of psyches over a long-ago transgression. It’s not an issue that Belber and Linklater chose not to open up the play, leaving it much the same way it probably was when it played out on the confines of a stage (in fact, Linklater’s few attempts to create some dynamic camera angles to shake things up are weaker than his more flatfooted presentation the material), but someone should have reminded the actors to adjust the level of their performances. Ethan Hawke is especially over-amped, pitching his take on an admittedly anxious character somewhere between the Phantom of the Paradise and Daffy Duck. Uma Thurman fares somewhat better as a woman intrinsically involved in the dispute between the two friends, but her role is a much a dramatic device as a fully drawn character.

Bad News Bears (2005)On paper, this has a lot of potential. The screenwriters behind Bad Santa recondition the 1976 Michael Ritchie film for the foul-mouthed frontman Billy Bob Thornton and turning it over to director Richard Linklater, who proved his slick entertainment chops with School of Rock. In execution, however, it’s a real mess, somehow managing to be both weirdly tame and pointlessly profane.

Fast Food Nation (2006). Eric Schlosser‘s 2001 book is a mind-spinning feat of investigative journalism, examining the insidious influence of fast food on the American culture in a way that goes well beyond the sort of health-based condemnation that’s become commonplace. Schlosser digs into the nasty child psychology manipulations employed by the big chains and considers how the meat-packing industry has dangerously cut corners in part to meet the high-production, low-cost demands of the top clients. Linklater works directly with Schlosser in adapting the book into a fiction film and that sort of ambition remains in place. Unfortunately, the material seems to repel these efforts. Linklater and Schlosser throw a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what sticks only to find themselves staring down a blank wall. Nothing ever gels. Individual story threads just drift along and sometimes vanish for lengthy stretches, leaving them feeling especially underdeveloped (Greg Kinnear’s fast food exec is unseen in the last third of the movie, only reappearing for an afterthought coda). It’s a bad sign when the throwaway details–like a man toiling away at the meat packing plant despite missing a good chunk of one of his arms, undoubtedly sacrificed to the machinery earlier in his career–carry more impact than the big scenes taking aim at the powers-that-serve-burgers.

A Scanner Darkly (2006). Have no fear: Robert Downey Jr’s trademark style of fidgety overacting can survive the process of being rotoscoped into animation. He’s as distracting as ever in writer-director Richard Linklater’s adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel A Scanner Darkly. It maybe unfair to lead with that bit of snark since Downey is hardly the biggest problem with this well-intentioned but sadly inert drama of paranoid science fiction. For one, it hardly seemed necessary for Linklater to return to the animation technique he employed in his excellent 2001 film Waking Life. In that film it helped him to create imagery with the fluidity of a dreamscape, merging his philosophical meanderings with visuals that were as casually exploratory. Here, beyond realizing a couple of concepts in a way that would have difficult to believably pull off with the most advanced CGI, there seems little reason to have taken the steps beyond using the filmed footage of the actors. The story itself is grim, probably more faithful to Dick’s original vision than is usually the case and a bit of a bore.

From the Archive: A Prairie Home Companion


I don’t have much to add to the review below (originally published at my former online home), except to note that every great director deserves to have a final film as perfect of a closing statement as this one is for Robert Altman.

Enjoyment of the new(ish) film A Prairie Home Companion is not predicated on an appreciation for the long-running radio program that shares its name, but it may be dependent on an admiration for the work of Robert Altman.

That particular logic problem answer is based on a case study of one. I plainly don’t enjoy Garrison Keillor’s radio program, finding its gentle homespun storytelling and plunking musical performances to be achingly dull. I’ve tried to find its charm, genuinely hoping to discover that ingratiating warmth that keeps dedicated public radio listeners coming back week after week. Instead, I’m left as perplexed as Homer Simpson when he famously encountered a Keillor doppelganger while watching a PBS pledge drive and responded by smacking the side of the set in futile hope that it would jar some actual entertainment value out of the performer.

And yet…

Generally, I enjoyed the film. Keillor’s script (based on a story co-conceived with TV writer and Minnesota educator Ken LaZebnik) focuses on the production of a lightly fictionalized version of his radio show. Hanging heavy over the typical hustle and bustle of a live radio program featuring multiple musical performers is a sense of mild dread as a major media company has just bought out their home radio station and there are expectations that this performance may be the last. Interspersed are hints of relationships between the characters and backstories that come lightly into play through the dense conversations backstage and, occasionally, on mike.

All of these plot details feel somewhat incidental, though, and not by faulty narrative construction, but by design. Altman has rarely been concerned with the rigors of linear storytelling. He’s much more fascinated with submerging his films into a culture and soaking it in. He wants to convey how a place, a time, a group of people feel. What is it like to move through life with a group of characters for a while? There is a main plot that moves through the 105 minutes of the film, and several smaller stories that drifts along in its wake, but Altman primarily seeks to bring to the screen the work of performers, the effort and strain and combativeness and playfulness of the troupe that mounts this production. Keillor’s radio show is an affected reflection of Midwestern stasis, but the film he’s made with Robert Altman is about the focused stage managers and anxious musicians that manufacture the artifice. In their toils, it finds a bracing energy that enlivens the lengthy portions of the radio show performances that help fill the film.

When a film is more about the parts than the whole, the consistent excellence of those parts becomes extremely important and that’s where Companion picks up some static. There are pleasures aplenty provided by the large cast, led by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as singing sisters, the last remaining remnants of a family act that toured the county fair circuit (to Keillor’s credit, he understands that you’ll not find a better city name to use as a ready-made punchline than Wisconsin’s Oshkosh, and making this the sisters’ hometown allow him to drop the O-bomb with impunity). The mastery of Altman’s trademark naturalistic, overlapping dialogue that they demonstrated at this year’s Oscar ceremony serves them well here. I suspect a satisfying film could be wrestled together solely and strictly from this tandem’s extended dressing room conversations. While the more jagged edges given to Tomlin’s character offer her a little more to do, Streep deserves admiration for her astonishing ease and comfort with the on-stage performances. Thirteen Oscar nominations de damned, watching her here it’s well within the realm of imagination that she could bypass future film work and wind down her career having the time of her life with a weekly gig at the Fitzgerald Theater.

Not faring as well is Kevin Kline, portraying the official show detective (already an odd conceit) Guy Noir, whose name is apparently taken from a recurring radio show character, but I presume the tiresome physical shtick he engages in is freshly created for the film. Perhaps Kline brought in some of the rejected gags from his prior production. Everyone else lands somewhere in between, although singing cowboy duo Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly can claim one of the film’s most unlikely comic highpoints with their final song.

This is hardly one of Altman’s masterworks. It doesn’t have the bite of Nashville or The Player, nor does it have the focus of Gosford Park. But it does have the restless bustle of his better efforts, that incessant inquiry into overlooked corners where little moments are as telling as sweeping stories and big points. It is truly, unmistakably Altmanesque.

From the Archive: Little Miss Sunshine


As Battle of the Sexes makes its initial, limited-engagement foray into theaters this weekend, I double-checked the filmography of co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, figuring that I’d been largely tuning out their work since their feature debut, Little Miss Sunshine, became a sleeper hit and a Best Picture Oscar contender. Instead, I found that there hasn’t been much to ignore. In the eleven years between their debut and their latest, the husband-and-wife team delivered only one other film, the poorly-received Ruby Sparks. Here’s why I wasn’t paying attention: I really disliked Little Miss Sunshine. This review originally appeared at my former online home.    

Little Miss Sunshine is the sort of film I’d expect a powerful computer to create after compiling data gleaned from all of the comedic films that generated buzz at the Sundance Film Festival over the years. It’s a road movie with a dysfunctional family at the core. It’s got an old person who uses foul language and illegal drugs, a self-help guru who can’t get his own life in order, a teenager who’s sense of personal detachment from the world has led to a vow of silence, and on and on. The movie is so mercilessly crammed with archly colorful details that the family drinks from McDonald’s glassware and embark on their roadtrip in a dilapidated old VW bus. It feels orchestrated rather than created, carefully engineered to hit the Sundance jackpot. On that front, mission accomplished.

Despite the scorn sprinkled through the above paragraph, that’s not automatically a damning crime. One of the things we get from going to the movies is that comforting satisfaction of the familiar or the expected. Sometimes when a movie ends exactly the way we expect it to, it feels right rather than disappointingly predictable. That’s even true for independent fare, when all the pieces lining up properly can be an indication of artistic assurance. The problem with Little Miss Sunshine is that it has little to offer besides its standard-issue parts. The film aims it satiric darts at easy targets and can’t even capitalize on the comedic possibilities offered by the characters. The few times they are allowed to really spark off of each other generally correspond to the moments when the film briefly generates some energy. When Steve Carell starts giving Greg Kinnear a backseat lesson in sarcasm, cherish it. It’s like won’t soon come again.

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (veterans of music videos and Mr. Show) assemble the film adequately, at least having the sense to give their talented cast the room to squeeze whatever they can from Michael Arndt’s limp screenplay. It’s always satisfying to see Alan Arkin and Toni Collette, no matter how much you long for them to have something beyond the simplistic to dig into. Arkin has the designated showboat role, but Collette fares better in some respects, occassionally inserting an intriguing detail in a fluttery throwaway or small reaction. Carell continues to combine crack comic timing with a genuine investment in real acting, and Kinnear is as good as he’s ever been here, hitting the right mark of irritable worry for his character with a constitent level of commitment that–Oscar nomination be damned–is fairly rare for him.

I kept waiting for these gifted performers to pull it together, to transcend their thin material. Despite scattered memorable moments–the methodology employed by Abigail Breslin’s Olive to retrieve her emotionally wounded brother is an especially nice example–the film remains defiantly tethered. The family never feels like people with long-standing relationships, and the emotional turning points are too often driven by illogical story construction, ludicrous coincidence or plain old plot holes.

Near the end, there’s a scene that involves the family members stepping up to support one of their own in an especially low moment. The result is an exuberant celebration of the character’s ill-conceived choice, the entire family united through the mutual embrace of their own off-kilter connection to the world they move through. It’s not a great moment, but it’s one of the places where the familiarity of the filmmaking choice at least feels right. With Little Miss Sunshine, those glancing connections to genuine accomplishment are the best you can get.