Veteran husband-and-wife musicvideo and commercials team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris make a disarming segue into features with “Little Miss Sunshine,” a quietly antic dysfunctional family road trip comedy that shoots down the all-American culture of the winner and offers sweet redemption for losers — or at least the ordinary folks often branded as such. Pic’s distinguished by a flawless cast, a gentle spirit of rebellion and a smart script by first-time screenwriter Michael Arndt that knows never to push its character quirks too hard. Its humanity and heart make it a natural to transcend the indie niche to a broader audience.
Within hours of its premiere at Sundance, Fox Searchlight swooped in to close a worldwide distribution deal on the film, snagging the specialty division a release that stands a chance of being molded into another crossover hit on the order of its Park City pickups “Garden State” and “Napoleon Dynamite.”
Like the broken-down VW bus that transports the Hoovers from their home in Albuquerque, N.M., on a foolhardy but determined mission to Redondo Beach, Calif., the filmmakers have an astute understanding that a family is a wildly imperfect machine, made up of ill-fitting components and prone to malfunctions minor and major.
A sharply cut opening sequence of quick character-establishing scenes underlines that this is an especially problematic clan.
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Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker on a career downslide yet stubbornly committed to his “Refuse to lose” philosophy. His wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) barely disguises her impatience with his canned claptrap, hinting at deeper marital disharmony. Their teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano) is a Nietzsche devotee maintaining a vow of silence until he’s old enough to become a fighter pilot, while Grandpa (Alan Arkin) is a profane old horndog with a heroin habit. Newest addition to the household is Sheryl’s suicidal brother Frank (Steve Carell), a renowned Proust scholar who lost both the male grad student he loved and a MacArthur Foundation genius grant to a rival academic.
The family’s sole oasis of serenity and self-possession is Olive (Abigail Breslin), a slightly chubby, bespectacled 7-year-old with a questioning nature and a fixation on beauty pageants. Having been taught to pursue her dreams, Olive has been privately rehearsing her talent routine with Grandpa; her shot at the Little Miss Sunshine crown is the engine that drives the comedy.
There are probably few more obvious emblems of soulless success than a children’s beauty contest. And the notion that Olive would somehow get onstage without her parents having any knowledge of the act she was preparing — or any misgivings until the last minute about the potential humiliation she’s being subjected to — seems implausible. But as a chaotic, cathartic bonding experience, it works, in part because the family members are so caught up in their individual frustrations and insecurities.
During the interstate trip, punctuated by hilarious setbacks and disasters, the directors nurture the melancholy strain in Arndt’s script while subtly coaxing small signs of love and support within the Hoover family. The eccentric comic tone is deftly channeled by a cast with no weak element. As a guy who seemingly buys into the most trite prefab pop-psych blather but gradually reveals his deeper sensitivity, Kinnear has never been better, while Collette does lovely, understated work as an emotionally burdened, abraded woman whose caring nature is never in doubt.
Following “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “The Office,” Carell shows further evidence he’s the real deal with his morosely deadpan characterization. Arkin gets the best lines as the irascible oldster with no politeness filter.
Dano plays an introspective teen different from his character in “L.I.E.” Communicating only with terse notes such as “I hate everyone” for much of the movie, he’s both funny and affecting. Gracefully sidestepping all the usual traps of too-cute screen tykes, Breslin is a delight, anchoring the comedy with a balance of guilelessness and innate wisdom as a kid who marches to her own drummer.
The directors’ light, uncalculated touch with the material is echoed in the modest production’s fresh, appealingly unslick feel. Tim Suhrstedt’s widescreen lensing is notable for its agitated movement and quirky but unforced visual compositions, while the score by Mychael Danna and performers DeVotchka supplies warm, animated rhythms.