I wasn't particularly looking forward to Little Miss Sunshine, as the trailers made it seem like a too-familiar collection of self-conscious "indie" quirk. And as the entire concept of independent cinema has been so frequently copied, co-opted, bought, sold, and processed, I wasn't in the mood for yet another movie that reminds us how every dysfunctional family is adorable in its own way. Luckily, while Little Miss Sunshine doesn't reinvent the mold, it cuts deeper than I expected. From the title card displayed over Steve Carrell's broken, teary-eyed face, the film displays an understated wit and sensitivity; it earns its laughs.
At the heart of the film is Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin), a little girl who dreams of becoming Miss America. After Olive qualifies as a semifinalist in the Little Miss Sunshine competition, her entire family (for reasons too complicated to relate here) accompanies her on a two-day road trip to the pageant in California. A rickety old VW bus with a tempermental transmission houses Olive's dad Richard (Greg Kinnear), a motivational speaker struggling to keep his finances and marriage afloat; mom Sheryl (Toni Collette), who stares at her husband with silent disdain; Sheryl's brother Frank (Steve Carrell), the self-declared "premier Proust scholar," who is recovering from a broken heart and a suicide attempt; teen son Dwayne (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence and jots "I hate everybody" on a notepad; and Grandpa (Alan Arkin), who snorts heroin, swears like a sailor, and adores his granddaughter. The film could have easily devolved into a sitcom, turning the Hoovers into a group of one-dimensional caricatures. But while Little Miss Sunshine has some broad laughs (particularly at the expense of beauty pageant contestants), it never panders to its characters. Some of the funniest moments come from small bits of observation, such as Carrell's hilariously painful encounter with his ex-boyfriend and his new, more successful lover. While the scene ends on a punchline, the real humor can be found in Frank's wounded expression as he feigns happiness. It's the kind of moment that goes beyond the joke to reveal an underlying truth, and Little Miss Sunshine is full of such moments.
Husband-and-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, working on their first feature (previous credits include episodes of Mr. Show and the video for The Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight Tonight"), and they achieve a fun, sunshine-yellow visual style that emphasizes the vast empty spaces that punctuate the American landscape - comedies are rarely this good-looking. But they're also smart enough to let the actors dominate the proceedings, and the well-cast ensemble has a field day with Michael Arndt's screenplay. Collette and Dano both project a quiet, seething anger that make them sweetly believable as mother and son. Kinnear has made a career out of playing smug authority figures, but he uncovers new shades of meaning in this particular smug authority figure. Arkin delivers Grandpa's profane words of wisdom with gusto, refusing to fall victim to the "horny old guy" cliché. But the real standouts here are Carrell, deserves an Oscar nomination for his subtle, bittersweet work as Frank, and Breslin (previously seen as Mel Gibson's hyperactive tot in Signs), whose wide-eyed, solemn dreams of being Miss America carry us through the film - you can't help but root for the kid.
Dayton and Farris balance slapstick with tragedy with the lightest of touches, creating a film that avoids sentimentality but inspires our optimism. As the Hoovers make their way towards the pageant, we observe how, no matter how hard they try to alienate themselves from one another, they remain a family. It's not the newest or boldest message, but Little Miss Sunshine earns it honestly. And the climax, which blows a big, gratifying raspberry at the "#1" mentality, is worthy of The Bad News Bears. The term "broad appeal" too often refers to completely generic films that have been made for noone in order to placate everyone. But Little Miss Sunshine is the best kind of crowd-pleaser; it's about our collective hopes and anxieties, our secret dreams, the ways in which we struggle to make any emotional connection, and the joy that comes from learning to understand one another. After a typical summer of prepackaged "fun," its a breath of fresh air.