This breakout hit from the 2006 Sundance Festival is about a comically dysfunctional family from Albuquerque whose awkward 8-year-old daughter unexpectedly makes it into the finals of a beauty pageant for little girls. The clan then embarks on a two-day road trip to Redondo Beach, California for the finals. And while the kooky characters and zany yellow VW bus they ride in may scream Quirk-O-Rama, the script, by first-time writer Michael Arndt, continues to dodge all manner of preciousness while serving up some bone-dry laughs and wise, honest insight about a family of born losers.
Arndt's offbeat mix of vulgar black comedy and feel-good movie, directed by the husband and wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (their first feature after innumerable music videos), may make some viewers uneasy. Not just because of its delivery, but because of its nonconformist message that, compared to the creeps we call "winners" these days, it's not only okay but maybe even preferable to be a loser. For despite its upbeat finale, Little Miss Sunshine has at heart a genuine anger at the soullessness of our hyper-competitive modern world, where everyone from beauty pageant hosts to grief counselors enforces a shallow, brittle status quo that the Hoovers, one by one, reject.
In fact if there is one character whose growth is central to the film, it is not little Olive (the disarming Abigail Breslin), the chubby, nerdy child who believes she has a chance of winning a grotesque beauty pageant where sexed-up little girls strut their stuff on the catwalk, but her father Richard (Greg Kinnear), the success-obsessed entrepreneur who cannot stand the stink of failure in his family even as he becomes aware that he's as big a loser as everybody around him. Although Kinnear is pretty hard to take for much of the film (especially in light of his largely appealing costars, including Alan Arkin as a foul-mouthed, heroin-snorting grandfather and Steve Carell, nicely underplaying it as a suicidal gay brother), his initial obnoxiousness is a necessary starting point for his character's arc.
As for the grand finale, although there's something Hollywood-friendly about it, it still rings as a genuine "fuck you" to mainstream America. It also doesn't pull the Hoovers out of their desperate, nowhere lives – in fact, they're all worse off by film's end than they were at the beginning. Maybe it's due to my own fascination with success and failure, but I for one found this refreshing. I also feel that the filmmakers believe that their characters deserve whatever happiness they find, even if it's not the happiness they were looking for.