Heartwarming comedy follows a dysfunctional family on a frantic road trip across the US in a decrepit Volkswagen van to deliver their youngest to a chld beauty pageant on time. Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) is an ordinary little girl, perhaps even on the plain side as far as looks go but she has a dream cast in stone - to win the Little Miss Sunshine child beauty pageant. Her heroin-snorting grandfather (Alan Arkin) coaches her in some rather unorthodox and grown-up techniques - when he's not on the nod. Her mum (Toni Collette) and dad (Greg Kinnear) are at each other's throat because dad has sunk their entire worth into a self-help business that's a total non-starter. Her philosophically-constipated older brother (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of nihilistic silence and her suicidal gay uncle (Steve Carell) has come to stay for a while after yet another failed attempt to cash out early. Has Olive got a chance? No, she hasn't, but it's the journey that matters, not the destination - ultimately the message of this touching comedy.
Pile together a blue-ribbon cast, a screenplay high in quirkiness, and the Sundance stamp of approval, and you've got yourself a crossover indie hit. That formula worked for Little Miss Sunshine
, a frequently hilarious study of family dysfunction. Meet the Hoovers, an Albuquerque clan riddled with depression, hostility, and the tattered remnants of the American Dream; despite their flakiness, they manage to pile into a VW van for a weekend trek to L.A. in order to get moppet daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) into the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. Much of the pleasure of this journey comes from watching some skillful comic actors doing their thing: Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette as the parents (he's hoping to become a self-help authority), Alan Arkin as a grandfather all too willing to give uproariously inappropriate advice to a sullen teenage grandson (Paul Dano), and a subdued Steve Carell as a jilted gay professor on the verge of suicide. The film is a crowd-pleaser, and if anything is a little too eager to bend itself in the direction of quirk-loving Sundance audiences; it can feel forced. But the breezy momentum and the ingenious actors help push the material over any bumps in the road. -- Robert Horton