In "Little Miss Sunshine," Uncle Frank, the nation's preeminent Proust scholar, is sporting white gauze on his wrists, a result of his recent suicide attempt. Grandpa got kicked out of Sunset Manor for snorting heroin. Daddy wants to be a motivational speaker, only he's really the kind of annoying sales-pitch guy who motivates others to roll their eyes. Teenage brother Dwayne, a Nietzsche fanatic, has taken a vow of silence. And Mom? Mom sneaks smokes and considers it a balanced meal when she opens a bag of salad to go with her Diet Sprite and chicken-in-a-bucket dinner spread.
Throw all of them into a broken-down, yellow VW bus en route from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, Calif., so that 7-year-old Olive can compete for the dubious title of Little Miss Sunshine, and it feels like a recipe for disaster.
Which it is. Hilariously so.
"Little Miss Sunshine" triumphs with acting performances that are, across the board, poignant, smart and real. As Richard, Greg Kinnear is that familiar insufferable salesman, spouting positive-think-speak 24/7 while secretly driving his little girl (Abigail Breslin) to tears because "Daddy hates losers." The always wonderful Toni Collette is delightful as Sheryl, the mom trying to hold together a fractured and near-bankrupt family, but the fact that her strong performance ends up feeling like a backdrop only speaks to how powerful her cast mates perform (see In Focus on Page 29). The scene-stealer here is Steve Carell, whose turn as the awkward, tortured Uncle Frank is a revelation in its subdued lines and stilted body language.
What happens when the family actually makes it to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant -- which in its stereotypical rendering is both familiar and appalling -- is sad, sweet, enlightening . . . a whole host of things, really. But mostly it's just funny. Really, really funny.
-- Jennifer Frey
Contains profanity and scenes of drug use.