If loving the manufactured, made-to-order quirkiness of “Little Miss Sunshine” is wrong, then I don’t want to be right. This is a fine specimen of dysfunctional family formula.
Lauded passionately at Sundance, the movie boasts a deluxe cast including Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin, Toni Collette and Steve Carell, and one is taken aback — at least initially — by how sad and unlikable they all are.
Richard (Kinnear) is an obnoxious, self-styled “success” guru whose dubious nine-step program for wealth fulfillment has yet to find a publisher. His long-suffering wife, Sheryl (Collette), supports him, but at the moment is more concerned with her brother, Frank (Carell, awesome in his first dramatic role), a fussy Proust scholar who tried to commit suicide after getting ditched by his graduate student boyfriend for another Proust scholar.
When Sheryl tells her brother that she’s glad he survived, his response is the epitome of self-pitying despair: “That makes one of us.”
The rest of the household is similarly afflicted. Dwayne (Paul Dano), Richard and Sheryl’s angry, withdrawn, Nietzsche-reading teenage son, has taken a vow of silence until he can take his Air Force exam and leave home. Richard’s gruff, profane father (Arkin) nurtures a healthy heroin habit, and imparts to following wisdom to Dwayne: “At your age, you’d be crazy to do drugs. At my age, you’d be crazy not to!”
The lone family member who appears untouched by depression, cynicism and failure is 9-year-old Olive (“Signs” moppet Abigail Breslin, Oscar-worthy), whose bubbly, wide-open personality stands in sharp contrast to her kin.
As such, it makes sense when Richard and Sheryl pile the entire family into a rickety VW bus and leave Albuquerque for a weekend road trip to Los Angeles, where eager Olive will compete in a child beauty pageant called Little Miss Sunshine: Olive is their last lifeline. They can’t screw her up.
Naturally, there will be mechanical mishaps, unexpected mortality issues, comical encounters with highway patrolmen, zany denouements onstage in front of horrified pageant officials and — most inevitably of all — healing. Frank and Dwayne make natural allies; their scenes are very touching. Kinnear has never been better.
While the movie hardly resembles the real world, it skillfully reminds us of the important things in it.
>> Rated R (profanity, some sex and drug content), 101 min. Grade: A-