Written by Michael Arndt, Little Miss Sunshine is the story of the Hoovers, a contemporary Albuquerque family barely hanging on to the bottom rung of the middle class. Profane and randy Grandpa Hoover (Alan Arkin) has been kicked out of his retirement home for smoking heroin. Dad Richard (Greg Kinnear) gives self-help seminars to tiny groups of listeners, and his plans for a book and big promotional smash aren't going so well. Mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) is on her second marriage, but she's just about fed up with Richard's business pretensions and persistent failures. Teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano) reads Nietzsche, has taken a vow of silence and communicates only in shrugs and scribbled notes. Sheryl's brother Frank (Steve Carell) is a Proust scholar who has just attempted suicide when he was betrayed by his gay lover. And holding them all together is adorable little Olive (Abigail Breslin), an absolutely normal 7-year-old girl who unexpectedly gets to compete in the national finals of the Little Miss Sunshine contest.
Tactically, this picture is a road flick of sequential adventures. For reasons of pure contrivance, all our players pile into a decrepit Volkswagen bus to make the journey from New Mexico to California for Olive to participate in her pageant. Along the way, a clutch fails, a door falls off, a horn sticks and honks constantly, and dad misses a crucial freeway exit, requiring dizzying turns and much driving through parking lots and the wrong way down one-way streets. Occasional narrative questions go unanswered. Why is Grandpa doing drugs? Does Sheryl work? What did Richard do before he dreamed up his "nine-point plan for success," and how is he keeping the family in take-out chicken on what he's bringing in now? It's clear enough that Sheryl and Richard stay together for their kids, but what did Sheryl see in him originally? When Olive detects that Dwayne is color blind, what motivates Frank to tell him that his lack of color perception would bar him from his ambition to become an Air Force pilot? And what routine did Olive perform in the local Sunshine talent competition?
The absence of answers to such questions might prove critically damaging to a picture lacking the disarming humor and healing heart of this one. In the hands of lesser filmmakers and players, Little Miss Sunshine could easily have turned into another version of the Vacation movies, but it's much superior, and, in fact, much funnier than that. When Frank wants to stop at a convenience store for a Slurpee, we laugh when Grandpa asks him to pick up some "really nasty porn," but this joke is just a set-up for a better one to come later. Comparably, we laugh when Grandpa keeps urging Olive to work on her growl, but we have no glimpse of the hilarious use the picture will ultimately make of that growl.
Still, the smartly executed sentiment is the ingredient that really sets this picture apart. With the exception of Olive, the Hoovers are a pretty messed-up bunch. Grandpa's nihilism could drive a Baptist to drink. Frank needs to get a life, but he would be entirely justified in giving Richard a punch in the nose. And Dwayne needs to take his Prozac in elephant-sized capsules. But in pursuing its premise that though the Hoovers are in a bad way, they're not bad people, Little Miss Sunshine succeeds in making us care for every one them. Grandpa obviously loves his son. He's great with Olive. Dwayne gets an A in misanthropy and an A+ in pouting, but he's reliably sensitive to others and uncanny in his ability to do the right thing at just the right moment. Remarkably, the filmmakers pull off a swell of hopefulness in this picture without insisting that everything get wrapped up in a neatly happy ending. Some things change for the irreversible worse, and some things don't change for the better. But through all their travails, these are characters who can rely on one another's love. And sometimes, as John Lennon instructed us long ago, love is all you need.