The Contenders

Release: July 26

Distributor: Fox Searchlight

So there’s this plucky underdog trying to get to Southern California to compete for the prize of “Little Miss Oscar.” As far as it has come, how can we be sure it’ll make the final cut?

The Academy Award prospects of “Little Miss Sunshine” echo the unlikely but compelling pageant hopes of the film’s young heroine, Olive. A black comedy with feature-film rookies in the writing and directing slots, with a script that took years to move into production at a sub-$10 million budget, “Sunshine” lacks the sonorous import of the typical Oscar champ but still emerged as one of the most beloved movies of 2006: fun, unpretentious and charming.

Sundance Film Festival audiences gave “Sunshine” a standing ovation (which was then followed by a rights sale to Fox Searchlight for $10.5 million). Though a few complain that the film wears its quirks on its sleeve, “Sunshine” will make too many year-end top-10 lists not to receive nomination consideration, following in the footsteps of recent personal tales “Lost in Translation” and “Sideways.”

Running down the highway alongside “Sunshine” are husband-and-wife co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who can take credit for bringing the film safely home while delivering one of the iconic screen shots of 2006, the sight of a misbegotten family chasing its dilapidated VW bus down the road.

Although Oscar voters generally don’t reward tyro helmers of low-budget fare with directing and picture nods, they offer no bias against smaller movies for screenplay ones. Michael Arndt, who could previously be found in the Internet Movie Database only as an assistant to Matthew Broderick, may end up with an original screenplay nom added to his listing.

In the supporting acting categories, “Sunshine” will struggle to override the across-the-board strength of its ensemble. Greg Kinnear nails his role as the motto-infested family patriarch, and Steve Carell proves once again he’s no mere comic, but both will split support with screen vet Alan Arkin, whose last two Oscar noms came in the 1960s.

On the distaff side, 10-year-old Abigail Breslin probably has a better shot than “Sixth Sense” nominee Toni Collette. Come Oscar night, Breslin will be 5½ months older than youngest-ever winner Tatum O’Neal.

“Sunshine” could also be in the mix for other noms, with a distinctive score by Mychael Danna and internationally influenced indie rock band DeVotchKa perhaps the leading contenders.

Pic gained momentum on a platform release, doubling its previous week’s B.O. for three consecutive weeks en route to $57 million in its first 90 days. It is just self-possessed enough not to come away from the Oscar beauty contest empty-handed.

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