The grating black comedy about the paralyzing fear of not being strong, successful or skinny enough means to indict our national obsession with winners. The opening sequence introduces dad Richard (Greg Kinnear) delivering a motivational nine-step pep talk with mounting fervor. Big surprise: The very next shot reveals his audience as a few stragglers in a dingy classroom. At home, cantankerous Grandpa (Alan Arkin) settles in for his favorite leisure activity snorting heroin while mop-topped teenage Dwayne (Paul Dano) hits the weights in a sullen vow of silence under a giant Nietzsche poster.
In the next room, 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) stares through glasses at a TV beauty pageant. The camera settles in a hospital ward, on the sodden misery of Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), a gay Proust scholar who cut his wrists after losing his lover to an academic rival. Over his scowling face, the words appear: "Little Miss Sunshine." This is called irony.
With Frank sequestered in Dwayne's room on suicide watch, the bickering household gathers for dinner, just as a fluke announcement makes Olive a contender for the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest. Gung-ho Richard convinces his wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette), to make the 700-mile drive in the family's decrepit van. The others reluctantly sign on for no better reason than that's what characters in shaky farces do.
Little Miss Sunshine is the latest in a long line of Sundance clunkers that seem to have developed impressions of human behavior from incomplete space transmissions, from Happy, Texas to Me and You and Everyone We Know. Why does Sheryl, who doesn't want to take the van because she can't drive stick, suddenly decide when they're already on the road that she needs to learn? How does Richard manage to sweet-talk a biker into the most unnatural act of lending him his ride? By the time the family makes a hospital getaway with a loved one in the trunk, the characters have edged from foolish to humanly unrecognizable.
The pity is that there are strains of tenderness and generosity here: An affectionate scene between Grandpa and Olive comes as sweet relief, mainly because Arkin's character momentarily becomes a person instead of a wheezy comic device. And occasionally the directors capture an unexpected bit of beauty or freedom like Carell's cakewalk bolt toward the rolling van's doors. The movie's payoff winning isn't everything, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, etc. would go down a lot easier if Little Miss Sunshine didn't roam from scene to scene, searching for new characters to patronize.
And yet Little Miss Sunshine saves its one belly laugh for the pageant scene, which not coincidentally is the movie's only left-field surprise: Olive's glaringly inappropriate (or is it inadvertently appropriate?) talent contest specialty. As for the rest of this desperately contrived farcewould you settle for Little Miss Congeniality?