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‘Little Miss Sunshine’ is an indie treat

Road trip film is a mix of dark humor and heart, with rich performances
/ Source: The Associated Press

Back in the day, Public Enemy urged us, “Don’t believe the hype.”

With “Little Miss Sunshine,” you should just ignore the hype entirely, tune out the buzz that’s been building steadily for this movie since it was picked up at the Sundance Film Festival in January for a record $10.5 million.

Instead, just buckle up and go along for the ride.

This small gem is a road trip comedy that subverts the genre — a welcome change a few months after the lame “RV” — and instead offers a surprising mix of dark humor and heart, with rich performances from a strong cast.

What’s even more amazing is that this is the first feature from husband-and-wife directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, as well as screenwriter Michael Arndt.

In crafting their story about a family of losers struggling to survive in a society obsessed with winning, they’ve come up with no stereotypes, no self-consciously quirky indie-movie cliches. Rather, these are real people who are all hiding behind something, all trying to be someone they’re not, until they realize after being crammed together for 48 hours that they’re fine just the way they are.

Which sounds painfully feel-good — but mercifully, it’s not.

The title alone suggests the possibility of preachy affirmation, but Little Miss Sunshine is actually the name of a garishly oversexualized Southern California beauty pageant where sweetly awkward, 7-year-old Olive Hoover (the irresistible Abigail Breslin) plans to compete.

For various reasons that we won’t disclose here (but they do make sense, we promise) the entire Hoover family must pack up the VW bus in Albuquerque, N.M., to help her get there.

Dad Richard (Greg Kinnear, with high-energy desperation) has been furiously trying to sell his nine-step “Refuse to Lose” self-help program. Nobody is buying.

His own brash dad (Alan Arkin) is stuck living with the Hoovers after being kicked out of his retirement home. He copes through porn and snorting lines of heroin.

Richard’s scrawny teenage son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), has taken a vow of silence as he rigorously trains himself, hoping to get into the Air Force Academy. He reads Nietzsche and sulks all day.

Richard’s brother-in-law (Steve Carell), a Proust scholar, also has come to live with them after trying to kill himself. His suicide attempt — prompted by being rejected by a male graduate student — becomes the stuff of matter-of-fact dinner table discussion.

And finally there is the harried matriarch, Sheryl (Toni Collette), who strives in vain for suburban normalcy. She holds it all together with the help of cigarettes she swears she isn’t smoking.

Longtime music video directors Dayton and Faris play all of this straight with simple, intimate camerawork and without jaunty music to punctuate the weirdness. Instead, they opt for a tone of slowly percolating absurdity — and there would have been a lot to laugh about here even if the Hoovers had never gotten into the car and headed for Redondo Beach.

But this is one of those films where the journey is, of course, the destination. (You’ve gotta love the fact that they actually travel on highways and stop at chain restaurants to eat like ordinary people do, and defy the road trip movie conventions of two-lane roads and out-of-the-way eateries.)

Small moments reveal how brutally honest and observant the script can be, including a scene in which the slightly tubby Olive ponders ordering waffles and ice cream for breakfast, with varying responses from the male family members who’ve shaped her young life.

Each character undergoes a personal crisis during this weekend excursion, which does seem a bit contrived, but it also offers the actors some stand-out moments. Dano, who previously co-starred as the self-loathing Klitz in “The Girl Next Door,” is especially remarkable because he has to do more with less.

Carell is the most fantastic surprise of all, though; after making his name with deadpan comedy on TV’s “The Daily Show” and “The Office,” and in movies including “Anchorman” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” here he’s deadly serious and shows an unexpected depth.

Through all of these misadventures, Breslin remains steady, the youngest of all but also the most reliable. Bespectacled and beaming with excitement, she’s a joy to watch, as warm and bright as the pageant title her character covets.