“Little Miss Sunshine” is a quirky, cute little movie — almost too quirky and cute for its own good, in fact. Between the feel-good subtext about self-esteem and family and the cast of aggressively eccentric characters, each with his or her own kooky defining trait, “Sunshine” comes dangerously close to cutesy irrelevance.
What saves the film from indie-by-numbers tedium is the acting, and the entire cast is outstanding, but Steve Carell in particular deserves notice for his work as Frank, the suicidal Proust scholar whose boyfriend left him for a rival academic. Even that description of Carell's character sounds contrived, but Carell finds the humanity in the role, turning Frank from a bleakly funny concept into a relatable man.
This is Carell's gift — investing the men he plays with dimension, no matter how broad the characters appear on paper. He did it with the Brick character in “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” he does it each week on “The Office” as Michael Scott, and he pulled it off extremely well in “The 40 Year Old Virgin.”
“Virgin’s” Andy Stitzer sounds like a caricature in the making: a man who's nearing middle age, still collects action figures (anal-retentively) and rides his banana-seat bicycle to work (nerdily), and has never had sex. Carell co-wrote the Stitzer character, which may explain at least in part why it's a nuanced role — but he still had to bring Stitzer to life. Carell's great at the big-gesture moments, bellowing random phrases while enduring a chest wax, but he's just as good in the smaller moments. While Stitzer is erroneously comparing a woman's breast to a bag of sand, Carell's face runs a complicated course from uncomfortable to pained to terrified to sad and ashamed.
It's why the movie did so well — Stitzer is a figure of fun, but he's also a guy we know and like. He's hilarious, but he's familiar, too, and Carell should have gotten some Oscar/Golden Globe love for putting the two together so well.
Let's hope voters for the big awards correct their mistake this year, because Carell is doing the same kind bittersweet work in “Little Miss Sunshine.” It's more bitter than sweet here; wearing wrist bandages and a beard that seems to draw his face down, Carell inhabits his scenes with a wry sadness. Frank is both tragic and faintly ridiculous, and Carell plays it as though Frank knows that. The audience laughs as Carell grumblingly runs alongside a cranky VW bus, but he also manages to give the scene a shot of angst. And when Frank is confronted with the ruin of his personal life at a gas station, which sounds like a too-convenient Movie Moment, Carell brings viewers back to every cringe-tastic, only-funny-in-retrospect time they've run into an ex at the worst possible moment.
It's not showy work, but when moviegoers actually feel a character's pain, and want to give him a comforting hug, it's a job well done. And it should get an Oscar nom. Mark those ballots now: Steve Carell for best supporting actor.
Sarah D. Bunting is the co-creator of .