The highly stressed Hoover clan are taken aback by seven year-old ugly duckling Olive’s (Breslin) determination to compete in a beauty pageant. Circumstances force them cross country in a beaten-up VW van to be united by absurdity, disappointment and loss in one weird bonding experience.
This marvellous satire of modern life and family values calls to mind the wit of The Simpsons and the chutzpah of Malcolm In The Middle and — defying expectation — takes on a loving and painfully recognisable emotional life.
The Hoover family’s mobile misadventure situation evokes every family road trip comedy ever, and the eccentric characters have a family resemblance to those quirky tribes beloved of indie flicks. But Michael Arndt’s script (his first produced) is a smart, feeling original that exerts a fascination all its own and continually catches you off guard.
Obsessed with being a winner, dad Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a failing motivational speaker whose glib mottoes ill conceal his desperation. Mum Sheryl (Toni Collette) is stretched full-time smoothing things over while suppressing her own anxiety and rage. Angst-ridden teen Dwayne (Paul Dano) is into Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence, while appalling old coot Grandpa (Alan Arkin) has been kicked out of his retirement home for snorting heroin. Proust scholar Uncle Frank (Steve Carell) has just tried to kill himself, but his medical insurance has run out so he’s been tossed out of the psych ward into the bosom of his family. And then pudgy, bespectacled and wonderfully individual Olive (Abigail Breslin) gets the chance to strut her stuff in a kiddie beauty competition in California. Grandpa, it emerges, is partly to blame for setting her up for a presumed fall, telling Olive, “I love you, not because you have brains or personality, but because you’re beautiful.”
The Little Miss Sunshine pageant itself is a blood-curdling showcase for eensy, grinning poppets slathered in cosmetics and posturing like freakishly overgrown Barbie dolls. Olive’s ‘talent’ spot proves so wildly inappropriate as to be the ultimate damning statement on these paedophile parades. It’s also hysterically funny.
Making their feature debut, married co-directors Dayton and Faris (who cut their chops on videos/documentaries for the likes of REM, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Smashing Pumpkins) strike the right tone in every mood shift and keep the focus on startlingly credible, sympathetic human beings. The comedy-with-heart never gets lame or drippy when it’s constantly set off by choice background details (a gay porn mag called Buns & Ammo) and throwaway one-liners (a hospital functionary chirping, “Hi, I’m your Bereavement Liaison, Linda!”).
Sharp, very funny, surprisingly moving and rejoicing in great work from the entire cast, this sparkling little gem takes the family road movie to unhoped-for heights of hilarity and humanity.