Meet the Hoover family: patriarch Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker who insists that everyone has a choice between being a winner and a loser, even though his personal success rate relegates him to the latter category; his wife Sheryl (Toni Colette) juggles a day job, motherhood and running a chaotic household; their children number Dwayne (Paul Dano), a goth who wears a ‘Jesus was wrong’ t-shirt and refuses to speak, and Olive (Abigail Breslin) a precocious pre-teen who dreams of being a beauty queen. Unexpected guests in the Hoover household are Richard’s father Edwin (Alan Arkin), newly expelled from his retirement home for drugs related offences, and Edwin’s brother Frank (Steve Carell), a brilliant but neurotic scholar recuperating from a suicide attempt.
Which doesn’t add up to the stuff of which feelgood comedies are made, but ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ – directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris from a literate and witty script by Michael Arndt – is second only to ‘Sideways’ (up soon on the Personal Faves project) in mining a seam of humour from a melancholy set-up, and emerging, in its final scenes, as life-affirming.
Like Alexander Payne’s masterpiece it unfolds as a road movie, the dysfunctional sextet crowding into a beat-up old VW Microbus as they head for California where Olive is to compete in the final of the Little Miss Sunshine contest. Everything from mechanical failure to hospitalisation conspires to prevent them, and when they finally make it to the pastel-decorated hotel hosting the event, Richard, Dwayne and Frank - at odds from the outset - find themselves united in abhorrence: the beauty contest verges on exploitation, prepubescent girls made up and paraded more in the manner women ten or fifteen years their senior. Olive, however, insists in competing.
Melancholy pervades the characters, the journey, the film itself: virtually all of the Hoovers are defeated in their ambitions. By the end, it’s all down to Olive to win one back even though everything seems stacked against her. The ending doesn’t pan out quite as you’d expect ... but it’s an absolute delight all the same, gloriously sending up the beauty pageant for what it is.
Abigail Breslin (aged ten at the time of filming) turns in an astounding performance, but so does the whole cast; in particular, Toni Colette, striking the right note between flustered and dependable as a woman trying to be all things to all family members, and Alan Arkin, an absolute hoot as the foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed Edwin “Are you getting any?” he asks Dwayne at one point. “What are you, fifteen? Just the right age. You're jailbait and they're jailbait. It doesn't matter. Leave it till you're eighteen and you're looking at three to five.” (Bear in mind that it's Edwin who coaches Olive for the dance number she performs at the contest and you might get some idea of how unorthodox her routine is.)
Greg Kinnear, insufferably smug in most of his characterisations, convinces as a man trying to cling onto the positivity he peddles in his seminars even as he suffers one setback after another; while Steve Carell, in a performance devoid of the mugging and tomfoolery that often defines his onscreen persona, achieves a career best that you wouldn’t have thought possible. Both turn moments of cringe-making embarrassment – one involving the purchase of a pornographic magazine, the other the discovery of same by an overzealous traffic cop – into absurdist highlights.
And – proudly reversing into a parking space alongside a forecourt full of automotive icons including Herbie, the General Lee, Inspector Morse’s Jaguar Mk II and a certain Aston Martin DB5 “with modifications” – the Hoovers’ unpredictable yellow VW Microbus manages contain the entire family and all their differences and run away (almost literally!) with some of the funniest scenes.