The dysfunctional family is the bread and butter of indie movies, be they comedies or dramas. Back in the day, they showed up pretty regularly in serious and seriously funny mainstream movies too. Those would be the days when the Hoovers' 70s vintage, school bus yellow Volkswagen bus wasn't a vintage bus at all, but a reasonably recent vehicle. The VW bus, the symbol of a more freewheeling time, has its own mystique, and has been a vehicle of deliverance, discovery, and disaster for passengers who, like the Hoover clan, take to the open road, with all its promise and peril. The road trip movie, too, is a mainstay of the indie movie. Pile a dysfunctional family in a VW bus for a road trip and you've got all the makings for a low budget collection of cinematic cliches. Point that family in the direction of a child beauty pageant and, well, things might get ugly in a very sitcommish way.
Turns out they do get pretty ugly for the Hoover clan, but Little Miss Sunshine, despite a premise that sounds entirely unoriginal, is a caustically funny, persistently melancholy, unexpectedly fresh and spirited little movie about the pursuit of dreams, and a family on the move and on the verge.
The Hoovers are on the verge of financial ruin, thanks to dad Richard's get rich quick scheme to sell his get rich quick scheme to the masses. The masses, apparently, aren't interested. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a would-be motivational speaker whose message, a nine step program for success in everything, verges on emotional abuse when he applies it to his kids. The family is on the verge of emotional collapse too. Mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) has just taken her brother Frank (Steve Carell), a suicidal Proust scholar, under her wing and into the Hoover home. Frank is fresh from a failed romance and career-destroying indiscretion, and winds up bunking with his teenage nephew Dwayne (Paul Dano), whose only words of comfort are a hastily scribbled note that reads "Please don't kill yourself tonight." Dwayne, an avid Nietzschean, hates his family so much that he has taken a vow of silence and hasn't spoken in nine months. His 7 year old sister Olive (Abigail Breslin), a cute little dumpling with big glasses and even bigger ambitions, rarely stops talking, and has dreams of beauty pageant glory. Helping her in her quest is Grandpa (Alan Arkin), a crusty old curmudgeon with a taste for porn and heroin.
Olive's unexpected ascendance into the Little Miss Sunshine pageant competition results in the entire family piling into their decrepit VW bus for a hasty trip from Albuquerque to Los Angeles. There are roadblocks along the way -- car trouble, financial trouble, marital and family troubles -- that both threaten and strengthen family unity, such as it is.
For Richard, his daughter's quest for pageant glory is an occasion for life coaching, nutritional counseling, and the application of the nine steps. Nobody calls him Dick, but they really should. The rest of the family circles the wagons to protect Olive from a cruel world and her own quixotic dreams, although they don't do the same for dad or Dwayne, who, as it happens, really need the protection more. Porn and Proust collide in a convenience store; dreams of freedom -- from worry and want, misery and necessity -- collide with reality on the road to California, as they do on the road of life. Like other families before them, the Hoovers are heading for California in search of a dream, but they may be traveling in the wrong direction.
As road trips tend to do, this one brings out both the best and the worst in the Hoovers. The VW bus ought to be the poster car for unexpected engine trouble, as anyone who has attempted a cross-country trek in one knows only too well. But for that very reason it's also a symbol for the very American do-it-yourself spirit, a roll-up-your-sleeves and get-er-done optimism that well describes the Hoovers. It's an optimism that isn't necessarily grounded in reality, of course, and reality for the Hoovers, as it is for many contemporary Americans, is that disaster and ruin are one missed exit, one lost opportunity, one wrong turn away.
The screenplay by Michael Arndt is brisk, light-footed if not always lighthearted, and crammed with funny moments, absurd sight gags and dialogue that zips from the profane to the profound. Little Miss Sunshine was directed by the husband and wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who make a smooth transition here from music videos to feature films. The movie isn't flashy or particularly stylish, but there's nothing wrong with filmmaking that doesn't call attention to itself, especially when it's enhanced by exquisite comic timing, a careful navigation through wildly swinging moods, and a deft avoidance of false sentimentality. Little Miss Sunshine is grounded by excellent performances across the board, a breezy absurdity, and an unexpected insightfulness that transcends the familiar and predictable.