Let the Sunshine In 

The road of reality is paved with insanity for the Hoovers

Every once in a while a movie comes along that's so special, you wish you could bottle all that's great about it and carry it with you forever. Little Miss Sunshine is such a movie, and then some.

Every once in a while a movie comes along that's so special, you wish you could bottle all that's great about it and carry it with you forever. Little Miss Sunshine is such a movie, and then some.

Hollywood has given the world plenty of films about dysfunctional families, but the Hoovers of Little Miss Sunshine are especially fun to watch because their bitterness manifests in both humorous and embarrassing moments of brutal honesty. The lone person who doesn't bear animosity toward others is Olive (Abigail Breslin), a 7-year-old girl too young to be disillusioned by reality. This bespectacled, pot-bellied little girl believes she can win a beauty pageant called Little Miss Sunshine, and because the family wants to give her a chance, they take a 700-mile road trip in a broken down VW van to Redondo Beach, California, where the pageant is held.

It's fitting that nothing goes right on the trip, because nothing has gone right for this family in a long, long time. Patriarch Richard (Greg Kinnear) has been trying to sell his "nine-step" self-help seminar for years, but it's been a total failure. His wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) has been supporting the endeavor because Richard has convinced her it's about to hit big, but she's quite weary of the financial burden she's carrying and needs something to change soon.

Also onboard are their son Dwayne (Paul Dano), who's taken a vow of silence until he begins flight school in three years; Sheryl's suicidal brother Frank (Steve Carell), who's the self-proclaimed "pre-eminent Proust scholar in the United States"; and Richard's father (Alan Arkin), who's been thrown out of a senior citizens' home because of his heroin addiction.

It's a shame that there's no Academy Award for ensemble cast, because you're unlikely to see a better collection of performances this year. In fact, they play off one another so well, it truly feels like they've been an unhappy family for decades.

But things aren't all serious. First-time screenwriter Michael Arndt's script is a comedy at heart, and also offers some of the funniest moments of cinema this year. Every time Arkin is on screen he makes the audience laugh with his deadpan delivery, and Carell once again shows impeccable comic timing in an understated role that's also one of his best. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris also deserve credit for balancing the satire with the unforgiving reality in which the movie takes place, and making that reality so strikingly similar to our own.

Little Miss Sunshine is a rare movie that has the sense to not settle for an ordinary happy ending, but rather, finds an ending that befits the characters as we've grown to know them. This is a movie full of unforgettable moments that range from laugh-out-loud hilarious to touchingly sweet, and because we're watching real, flawed people trying to make their way in this crazy world, it touches us in ways we would never expect.

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