Grandpa (Alan Arkin) does heroin. Dad (Greg Kinnear) hopes to become a motivational guru with a dreary nine-step program that asks people to banish their inner losers. Chubby little Olive (Abigail Breslin) is determined to become a prepubescent beauty queen, the Little Miss Sunshine of the title. That goal is not particularly advanced by her brother (Paul Dano) or her uncle (Steve Carell), a Proust scholar coming off a suicide attempt. Mom (Toni Collette) is loving but too distracted to cook. At the Hoover house in Albuquerque, N.M., it's all KFC all the time.
American dysfunction! Is there anything more comically inspiring than a hard, hilarious look at the reality behind this ruling cliché? For all the exaggerations in Michael Arndt's script (jauntily directed by the husband-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris), it comes closer to the truth about the way people really live--on the edge of fantasy-driven desperation--than our sanctimonies permit us to think.
The whole Hoover bunch piles into a Volkswagen bus so that Olive can take her shot at the Miss Sunshine crown. The vehicle is a perfect symbol of the family's tenuous grip on reality: only the third and fourth gears are functioning. That metaphor is pitch-perfect, but the film works a little too hard at proving the vileness of beauty pageants. When the M.C. (Matt Winston) croons God Bless America into the contestants' innocent ears, he pretty much summarizes American awfulness. It is a broad and fertile field, and the Hoover family plows it desperately in a comedy that touches on blackness without surrendering to it.