If everyone loves a winner, why do we walk out of Little Miss Sunshine  in love with the film’s miserable losers?
In an era when movie comedy means flatulence jokes and Sandleresque sadism, Sunshine... is both gut-bustingly funny and, deep in its greasy suburban heart, fiercely concerned with topics as serious as fulfillment, loss, and the American Dream.
Our dubious heroes are the Hoovers of Albuquerque, a clan of big dreams and bigger failures.
Father Richard (Greg Kinnear ) wants to be a motivational speaker. He has developed a nine-step program to turn losers into winners, not realizing that if he can’t make the program work for himself, there’s no way he can sell it to anybody else.
Mom Sheryl (Toni Collette ) has put whatever ambitions she has on hold to support the family while her hubby flounders hopelessly in the world of self-help. Her idea of a family dinner is a bucket of greasy chicken served on paper plates.
Surly teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano ) hates his life and wants to fly away – literally. He dreams of piloting jet fighters and has adopted a training regimen that includes 400 push-ups a day, vast quantities of Nietzsche, and a vow of silence not be broken until he’s admitted to the U.S. Air Force Academy .
Richard’s father (Alan Arkin ) is a foul-mouthed boor who discovered hedonism late in life. Now he’s been thrown out of his retirement community for illegal drug use.
Sheryl’s brother Frank (Steve Carell ) is the nation’s No. 1 Proust  scholar. He’s also on a suicide watch after slashing his wrists. The male grad student with whom he was in love jilted him to run off with the nation’s No. 2 Proust scholar.
And finally there’s little Olive (Abigail Breslin ), a bespectacled, potbellied 7-year-old who is so sure she’s going to be a beauty pageant winner that she studies videos of past Miss America competitions so that she can perfect her tearful acceptance speech.
Olive has been working with her grandpa on a dance routine that she’s positive will win her the title of Little Miss Sunshine in a peewee beauty pageant in Southern California.
The film is basically a road movie as the Hoovers pile into a canary yellow VW van and trek from New Mexico to the Pacific Coast so Olive can have her shot at stardom.
This vehicle becomes the seventh member of the family and, like the humans, it just can’t win. There’s no first or second gear, so everybody has to get out and push to get it started, and once up to speed there’s no slowing down. Late in the trip the VW develops a short in its horn and begins bleating like a dying ewe.
Remarkably, Little Miss Sunshine doesn’t overdose on quirkiness. The filmmakers recognize that for all their inadequacies, the Hoovers deserve our respect.
At the movie’s outset there’s so much unhappiness on display (our first glimpse of Carell’s grief-ravaged, hollow-eyed features is downright scary) that one may wonder how this will ever turn into a comedy. Rest assured that it does.
Scenes that could have been played for unbearable sadness instead generate deeply satisfying laughter. And by film’s end, when we’ve been immersed in a ghastly beauty pageant where heavily made-up little girls parrot the sexually charged body language of adults, the Hoovers’ efforts to protect little Olive seem positively heroic.
After all, once your dreams have been repeatedly knocked down, stomped on, and ground into the dirt, a sort of giddiness sets in. When life runs out of things to throw at you, you’ve won.
Directors Dayton and Faris, here making their feature debuts after a long partnership in music videos, display an amazing control over the material’s subtle shifts in mood, and they have drawn from their players some of the best ensemble you’ll ever see.
There’s not one weak link in the cast, though you may be particularly partial to Carell’s tormented Uncle Frank (he’s simultaneously heart-wrenching and wildly funny ... how does he do that?), Dano’s silently suffering Dwayne (if looks could kill he would rule a vast wasteland of corpses), and especially Breslin’s Olive, who for all her misplaced ambitions remains an adorably innocent little girl.
Other films in the series “Road Trip”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- August 4: It Happened One Night  (1934) Not Rated
- August 11: Badlands  (1973) Rated PG
- August 18: Little Miss Sunshine  (2006) Rated R
- August 25: Thelma & Louise  (1991) Rated R
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- August 6: Harry and Tonto  (1974) Rated R
- August 13: The Straight Story  (1999) Rated G
- August 20: Vacation  (1983) Rated R
- August 27: Broken Flowers  (2005) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler  is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com . He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.