A review of “Little Miss Sunshine” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: R for language and sexual content

Run Time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

 

 

Refuse to Lose! That’s the credo of this charming little indie that puts generation-gap dysfunction on the map.

The Little Miss in question is sunny 7-year old beauty pageant hopeful Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin), a darling dumpling whose cantankerous grandpa (Alan Arkin) is coaching her in pageant etiquette and a flashy talent number.

Life is not a bowl of cherries in the Hoover household. Dad Richard (Greg Kinnear) struggles to get his shaky motivational speaking career off the ground, pushing his nine-step, no excuses tutorial with forced brio. Mom Sheryl (the most excellent Toni Collette) flutters mother-hen like over an eccentric brood that also includes brother Frank (Steve Carell), fresh from a suicide attempt over the loss of his gay lover.

All systems are go when Olive unexpectedly nabs a spot in the penultimate Little Miss Sunshine competition, kick-starting familial frenzy. The gang is hastily packed into a last-legs VW van in Albuquerque, headed for the sunny climes of Redondo Beach, California.

It’s hell on wheels from the get-go. Tensions flare while Richard spouts irksome pearls of wisdom (“Sarcasm is the refuge of losers”) and grandpa entertains with glory stories of sexual conquests and heroin binges. The self-possessed reigning Little Miss Chili Pepper is aglow with dreams of pageant glory, patently refusing to buy into brother Dwayne’s (Paul Dano) Nietzsche-worshipping muted angst or Frank’s Proust Scholar superiority.

The foolhardy mission is peppered with road-trip mishaps that amuse and annoy, based on a vanload of sardonic insecurities. Pity and desperation overlaps belly-busting slapstick from Arizona to the California border and the disconcerting realities of pre-pubescent pageantry.

Ensemble acting is first rate; each and every player coming through with vibrant characterizations that mesh with thespian ease. Emotions bump and grind with gusto; nuanced, detailed and crafted for impact.

Carell the consummate comedian does eloquent drama, who knew? Dano takes his teenage torment to genuine heights and Kinnear and Collette dance around their strained marriage with spontaneous gall.

After extracting easy laughs and tears the ride falls short in the last act. Snappy narrative casts about for a clever climax that ultimately feels manipulative and cliché. No matter, “Sunshine” can be safely crowned a comic winner.