- If you meet this family on the road, just keep driving.
Like the shambling VW van its hapless characters steer from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, Little Miss Sunshine is a rickety vehicle that travels mostly downhill. How this antic extended sitcom from first-time feature-makers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris left Sundance with an eight-figure deal and reams of enthralled press clippings is beyond comprehension, even in light of its big-name ensemble and the predisposition of festival audiences to pat a film about lovable losers on the head.
A grating black comedy about the paralyzing fear of not being strong, successful, or skinny enough, Little Miss Sunshine means to indict our national obsession with winners and the stigma of coming in second. The opening sequence introduces dad Richard (Greg Kinnear), who's delivering a motivational nine-step pep talk with mounting fervor. Big surprise: The very next shot reveals his audience as a few stragglers in a dingy classroom. At home, cantankerous Grandpa (Alan Arkin) settles in for his favorite leisure activity -- snorting heroin -- while mop-topped teenager Dwayne (Paul Dano) hits the weights in a sullen vow of silence under a giant Nietzsche poster.
In the next room, seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) stares through glasses at a TV beauty pageant. The camera settles into a hospital ward, on the sodden misery of Uncle Frank (Steve Carell) -- a gay Proust scholar who cut his wrists after losing his lover to an academic rival. Over his scowling face, the words appear: "Little Miss Sunshine." This is called irony. With Frank sequestered in Dwayne's room on suicide watch, the bickering household gathers for dinner just as a fluke announcement makes Olive a contender for the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest. Gung-ho Richard convinces wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) to make the 700-mile drive in the family's decrepit van, and the others reluctantly sign on -- for no better reason than that's what characters in shaky farces do.
Little Miss Sunshine is the latest in a long line of Sundance clunkers, from Happy, Texas to Me and You and Everyone We Know. Why does Sheryl, who doesn't want to take the van because she can't drive stick, suddenly decide when they're already on the road that she needs to learn? So the gears can go out, turning the van into a rolling junkyard that requires group pushing. How does Richard manage to sweet-talk a biker into lending him a ride? That scene, in a Preston Sturges movie, might've been a pip -- an illustration of the power of can-do optimism, that pure-grade American snake oil, to hypnotize even the skeptical. But the movie just breezes on by, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a stranger to hand over his bike. By the time the family makes a hospital getaway with a loved one in the trunk, the characters have edged from foolish to humanly unrecognizable.
The beauty-pageant finale is the nadir of this desperately contrived farce. To engineer a happy ending -- the heroes mustn't look like losers -- the movie has to make everyone else look worse. Even as a metaphor for what's wrong with America, it goes past comic exaggeration into cruelty.