The Hoovers are a noisy dysfunctional family from Albuquerque with little in common. When the youngest member of the clan, Olive (Abigail Breslin, "Signs"), gets her prized shot at the Little Miss Sunshine child beauty pageant, she attempts to convince her family, including failed motivational speaker Richard (Greg Kinnear), exasperated mother Sheryl (Toni Collette), silent brother Dwayne (Paul Dano), suicidal uncle Frank (Steve Carell), and her bitter grandfather (Alan Arkin) to take a road trip to California to participate. Loading up a dilapidated VW bus, the family heads west, only to experience every setback imaginable on their journey.
The Sundance Film Festival stumbles along every year with a smorgasbord of indie movie offerings that hipsters and overfed film reporters dote on with smug satisfaction. Rarely do the selections pay off their hype. "Little Miss Sunshine" is the exception to the rule, and in a very big way.
The paint on the outside and the smell on the inside suggest "Sunshine" is just another factory assembled dysfunctional family road trip movie. We've seen that, but not nearly this surprising or this cleverly realized. Here the grumpy grandpa snorts heroin in his free time, and the depressed gay uncle is a puddle of sadness, unable to break his cycle of self-loathing. None of this is recognizable territory, and that's how "Sunshine" snaps the viewer out of the fog of low expectations immediately.
Screenwriter Michael Arndt isn't looking for clichés to bleed dry; instead, he tries to build something special with the Hoovers. The interaction within the family feels authentically prickly, with the hint of a warm undercurrent of love when things go their way. Arndt nurtures the relationships skillfully throughout the picture, knowing exactly where to up the ante or pay the characters off satisfactorily. This is a terrific script that doesn't buckle when facing delicate situations, nor does it pander to the mass crowds, enthusiastically offering characters that aren't always likable or do the right thing.
It helps to have a fantastic cast to fill out the edges of the writing, and directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton have assembled a wonderful ensemble to give the Hoovers life. The standouts are Greg Kinnear, channeling a pitch-perfect sense of panic at the dissolution of his dreams, and Carell, who conveys a multiplicity of sadness behind his medicated indifference. The whole troupe delivers in a big way, and considering they spend most of the film trapped in a bus, each actor is still able to make their motivations heard.
As the Hoovers cross the Southwest, Dayton and Faris gently nurse the anxiety of the road trip. It doesn't quite reach Griswold proportions, but the film isn't fearful of silly situations to counteract the somewhat heavy themes of toxic familial interaction. The directors keep their eye trained on every character, and like Frank screams after losing Olive to simple oversight, "no one gets lefts behind." Indeed, the film feels rounded and rewarding, where every step of development is thought out beforehand, but still remains unexpected when flashed in front of you. This is fine bit of direction from two former music video maestros.
No doubt about it, "Little Miss Sunshine" reaches for the heavens with a broadly constructed finale designed to bring the house down. After such commitment to character and crisp demonstration of ability to find their way out of iffy dramatic situations, "Sunshine" earns every last drop of go-for-broke audience pleasing. It may appear to be another insignificant Sundance offering on the outside, but "Little Miss Sunshine" is an enchanting, rewarding picture that should not be passed over.
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