The Sunday Mail (2006)
Toni's great ride
October 2006 | Written by Lawrie Masterton
The script of Little Miss Sunshine had exactly the same effect on Toni Collette when she read it as the completed film has had on America's movie-going public. It took them by surprise and they loved it. Sydney-based Collette first became aware of the comedy when someone showed her the script on a freezing night in upstate New York while she was working on The Night Listener, a dark tale based on an Armistead Maupin story. "Possibly because I was immersed in the darkness of The Night Listener, that's why Little Miss Sunshine kind of grabbed me wholeheartedly immediately," Collette says.

"While I was reading it, it literally made me feel so great. It's so incredibly well written and it's kind of a gut reaction that gets me involved. It bypasses my brain and speaks to some other area. It's like it chooses me instead of me choosing it. "I rang the directors the very next day." The movie-going public first heard about Little Miss Sunshine in January, when it became the hottest item on offer at the Sundance Film Festival and was snapped up by Fox's "speciality" arm, Fox Searchlight.

Released during a northern summer that yielded high-priced disappointments such as Lady in the Water, Poseidon and Superman Returns, the unhyped Little Miss Sunshine spent more than two months in the Top 10 and became Searchlight's second-biggest grosser ever, after Alexander Payne's Sideways (2004). Made for just $A11 million, it became the little film that could earn more than $A66 million. "Audiences are kind of feeling what I felt when I read it, which is all you can hope for when you sign on to do something," a delighted Collette says. From first-time screenwriter Michael Arndt and directed by husband-and-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, best known for music videos, Little Miss Sunshine is about the dysfunctional Hoover family, who set off in a bright yellow VW Kombi van on a road trip to a pre-pubescent beauty pageant. Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear) is a hopelessly optimistic motivational speaker who is having no success whatsoever trying to sell his nine-step program for success. His wife Sheryl (Collette) is "pro-honesty" and her patience is wearing thinner by the minute.

Their children are teenager Dwayne (Paul Dano), who reads Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence until he can get into the Air Force Academy; and Olive (Abigail Breslin), an adorable if slightly plump would-be beauty queen. Also along for the trip is Sheryl's brother Frank (Steve Carell), a Proust scholar recovering from a suicide attempt after having been jilted by his gay lover; and Grandpa (Alan Arkin), whose foul mouth and heroin habit had him kicked out of his retirement home. "It's a metaphoric journey as well as a physical journey, with all these people spinning in their own universes and not really connecting, although that's what they yearn for," Collette says. "It takes them being shoved into a bright yellow sweatbox and travelling for days on end for them to start seeing each other for who they really are and appreciate who they see. "And when you do connect in that way, you feel more comfortable being yourself."

Coincidentally, given the child beauty pageant subject matter, Little Miss Sunshine was on release in the US at the same time the country had become transfixed again with the 1996 murder of six-year-old pageant contestant JonBenet Ramsey. Admitting her knowledge of child beauty pageants is limited, Collette adds: "I do know that John and Val, when they were making this movie, never wanted to manipulate an audience into seeing what goes on at a beauty pageant as being good or bad. "They just wanted to leave that up to the audience."

At 33, Collette says she and her husband, drummer Dave Galafassi, are planning a family of their own but a quick glance at her work schedule indicates it won't be any time soon. She is currently co-starring with Vanessa Redgrave and Claire Danes in Evening, adapted from the Susan Minot novel by Michael Cunningham (The Hours). She will then do a still-untitled film with the creator of the TV series Six Feet Under, Alan Ball, before returning to Australia to work on Cathy Randall's Hey, Hey, It's Esther Blueburger, co-starring teenage Academy Award nominee Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider).

"It's basically a kids' movie, a very funny, vibrant one, and I'm happy to do it because I think it's important for Australian kids to be able to see and hear themselves on screen," Collette says. "I think it's becoming too rare." Collette also has her debut music album, called Beautiful Awkward Pictures, due for release on October 7.