It sounds puke-awful: a formula farce about a dysfunctional family from New Mexico that hops in a VW bus and heads to California, where seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) will enter the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant and teach her elders what really matters in life.
Surprise. Instead of yuck, we get something wonderful: a scrappy human comedy that takes an honest path to laughs and is twice as funny and touching for it. First-time screenwriter Michael Arndt — remember the name — has lucked out with a dream cast. Besides Breslin, there’s Greg Kinnear as Dad, a motivational speaker nearing meltdown, and as Mom the superb Toni Collette, just the actress to expose the fissures in a marriage with a glance. Along for the ride are Paul Dano as their alienated teen son, Alan Arkin as Dad’s junkie father and a deadpan-hilarious Steve Carell as Mom’s brother, a Proust scholar who’s been suicidal since his studly boyfriend dumped him. First-time directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris — their background is in music videos — avoid flash to get close to the places in the heart that bruise. Their debut is more than promising. No wonder this Little Miss was loved at Sundance. It’s National Lampoon’s Family Vacation with soul.