Little Miss Sunshine might be described as a road movie, but that would do this rather dark comedy an injustice. Yes, it follows the travels and travails of a family as they go from Albuquerque to Los Angeles in an old, less than reliable VW bus. And, yes, it has the same structures of most road flicks, with the family running into not only problems but problematic people along the way, surviving their own internecine quarrels, and ultimately banding together to forge a happy ending.
Yet viewers of this modest independent production will be constantly and pleasantly surprised with the variations on the theme that screenwriter Michael Arndt keeps delivering. Time after time when the situation threatens to turn sentimental or maudlin, Arndt and co-directors Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Feris undercut the possibility, turning it into laughter.
For starters, the Hoover family could be portrayed as either wacky or dysfunctional, a bunch of misfits who deserve each other. Dad Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker who has fooled himself into believing that he's a winner, despite his lack of success at gaining an audience or a lucrative book deal. His son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), is a classic adolescent rebel who refuses to talk to anyone else in the household, which he views as his own hell. Little sister Olive (Abigail Breslin) a pudgy, bespectacled youngster, dreams of winning the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest, in which she is a very long shot, indeed. Uncle Frank (Steve Carrell) is a renowned gay Proust scholar who has failed in love and can't even kill himself properly. Grandpa (Alan Arkin) has been kicked out of a retirement home for his bawdy behavior and foul mouth. Only Mom (Toni Collette) seems remotely "normal,"¯ whatever that label means in this context.
Given that surprise comprises so much of this film's appeal, it would scarcely be fair to reveal any of the several ways it functions. Suffice it to say that the trip to get to the contest is largely an excuse for getting these characters together in close quarters and watching what happens. The filmmakers are wise enough to stay out of the way of the script and let it work. The low budget and absence of "big names"¯ creates space for this vehicle to run on its own special fuel, in much the same way that another unorthodox road movie, Transamerica, did last year. The ending"”itself both a surprise and not-- runs on too long; otherwise, the comic timing is excellent, as it must be for this offbeat movie to succeed.
Little Miss Sunshine is rated "R"¯ chiefly for one character's frequent profanity, though is also has some muted sexual and drug references. Adults looking for a "safe"¯ or predictable film will likely be disappointed. Those who want something which doesn't fear to offend in its quest to entertain will be delighted.