approximately 32 minutes and 59 seconds on-screen
roughly 29% of film's total screen time
roughly 29% of film's total screen time
Quite simply, Abigail Breslin's Olive is Little Miss Sunshine - the narrative and emotional glue that holds the complexities of this simple little film together.
The film is built algebraically: six characters, ostensibly blood related, on a dubious roadtrip, in comically close quarters, with requisite madcap hilarity scheduled to ensue, and culminating in a climactic musical number. The characters, too, are built with formulaic specificity. The marrieds are having financial and other troubles. The teenager has taken a vow of silence which does little to quiet his raging hatred for his stepfather. The morbidly depressed gay uncle doesn't want to have to crash with his sister's low rent family, but his recent suicide attempt makes it a "doctor's orders" kinda thing. The grandfather got kicked out of the geriatric erotic wonderland of his retirement village because of his heroin habit, so he's stuck. In short, this "family" has little in common. Except for Olive. And this (along with the gourmet cast) proves to be Little Miss Sunshine's redemptive hook: each character - to a one - adores (in his or her own way) the 7-year-old aspiring beauty queen played by Abigail Breslin. And it's to her credit that Little Miss Breslin bears this burden with untroubled ease.
Breslin plays Olive with a radiant, elastic sweetness. But she's no prop of pure cuteness. Yes, Breslin's Olive is just darling BUT there's always something going on in that little noggin. The filmmakers establish Olive's preternatural independence in the film's opening scenes, as Breslin's Olive performs a stylized reenactment of a Miss America coronation she's got on tape. The visual discordance between Breslin's bespectacled, baby-bellied Olive and the blowdried Barbies on the teevee is initially startling, but it's Olive's reverie - which Breslin imbues with breathless exuberance - that anchors the scene. As Breslin's Olive plays pretend, she embodies the thrilling vulnerability of hope. And when a suprise phone call makes it all seem truly possible and Breslin's Olive screeches her glee as she packs for the trip of her dreams? Well, it's from this moment that the project of realizing such hope thereafter "drives" the narrative of the film...especially for the more adult characters, each of whom is stuck in the woundedness of various disappointments and thwarted dreams.
It's again a potentially banal "I Believe Children Are the Future" kind of symbolism. And in the hands of a lesser kid actor, 'twould have certainly been tripe. But here's where Breslin's performance elevates the film in subtle but essential ways. Breslin's Olive is pure hope and trust and aspiration, but she's also got her share of existential dilemmas. Breslin's Olive worries about her brother and her uncle and her grampa. She fears that she might be the kind of "loser" her father so loudly loathes. She's concerned that her father might be right about ice cream. And yet Breslin is able to shade the darker hints of these many fears, worries and concerns into her sweet brightness without compromising the clarity of her characterization. And as Breslin holds her own among the antics of her formidable adult co-stars, it becomes clear that Breslin's performance as Olive is an essentially active - rather than reactive - one. (Note that Breslin's only crying scene comes when she's worried if she's pretty, not when she's left behind at the convenience store. Count the number of important kid roles where this is true - where the kid's big moments come from their own thoughts & feelings and not their circumstances & environments - and you'll see what I mean.)
In Olive, Breslin gives an uncommonly faceted performance of a particular child's hopes and dreams, one essential to the narrative and emotional impact of the film. Hers is a worthy nomination and proof positive that Breslin's an important contemporary actor who just happens to be a kid.