The road trip is a journey toward cathartic enlightenment in Little Miss Sunshine, a Sundance sensation (read: purchased by Fox Searchlight for lots of money) about an Albuquerque family of screw-ups and oddballs who hop in a dilapidated, bright yellow VW van to get youngest daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) to the titular pre-teen beauty contest in California. It’s a highway already traveled this year by RV, though whereas Barry Sonnenfeld’s clunker was dominated by Robin Williams’s hambone antics, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s directorial debut equitably spreads its wackiness around, allowing each of its ensemble members to have at least one embarrassing and/or kooky and/or touching personality trait specifically designed to elicit a particular audience reaction.
Thus, dad Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear, revisiting his Bad News Bears loathsomeness) is a pathetic, second-rate self-help guru who believes winning is everything; older son Dwayne (Paul Dano) is a sullen moper who’s taken a vow of silence while striving to become a Nietzschian superman; Grandpa (Alan Arkin) is a sex-crazed heroin addict; Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), the country’s leading Proust expert, has just tried to kill himself over a lost love; and mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) is an empathic homemaker desperately trying to keep her brood from imploding. Caricatures all, these miserable men and women experience predictably scheduled blow-ups, breakdowns, and moments of healing, their farcical journey full of rusty contrivances made bearable (and intermittently amusing) chiefly thanks to sharp comedic performances by Arkin (full of piss and vinegar in a manipulatively discarded role) and Carell (turning moroseness into a weapon of deadpan humor).
More troubling is the film’s condescending portrait of grotesque Americana, from an early family dinner scene in which the dining room’s cheap wood paneling, McDonald’s glassware, and bucket-of-chicken main course are presented for easy laughs at the characters’ expense, to the clan’s subsequent pit-stops at freeway gas stations, motels, and the beauty queen extravaganza where unnaturally precocious, sexualized girls strut and shimmy for superficial rewards. Little Miss Sunshine’s idea of a corrective to this patronizing attitude toward its working-class milieu—and its glum inhabitants—is to have the Hoovers both reject, and then hilariously make fun of, the beauty contest’s monstrousness, an endeavor seemingly oblivious to its own hypocrisy. And yet there’s nonetheless something mildly endearing about the film’s joyful celebration of loserdom, which goes hand-in-hand with a disparagement of the black and white, success-at-all-costs ethos epitomized by the incumbent U.S. president Dwayne finds even more objectionable than his insufferable parents.