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Little Miss Sunshine

Don't let the title and the sunny images fool you.

Little Miss Sunshine

is a brightly packaged dark comedy about being a loser in a success-obsessed society. The film opens with a bespectacled and slightly chubby ten-year-old Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) transfixed by TV images of a beauty contest. As the winner is announced, the frozen smiles of the contestants contort into various emotions ranging from hysterical joy to utter devastation. Olive watches intently and tries to imitate their facial contortions. Meanwhile, her teenaged brother Dwayne (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence until he gets accepted into the Air Force Academy. He may not speak yet he still communicates youthful anger. In sharp contrast to Dwayne is father Richard (Greg Kinnear), a cheery motivational speaker who's trying to turn his 9-step program for success into a best selling book. Only problem is that no one's interested in buying it. So mother Sheryl (Toni Collette) has the burden of supporting the family and trying to keep everyone together. Rounding out the clan are Richard's father (Alan Arkin), who's just been kicked out of his retirement home for snorting cocaine and going after women, and Sheryl's brother Frank (Steve Carell), a Proust scholar who's recently been jilted by his gay lover. Frank is something of a loser among losers, not only has he been dumped, but he's lost his job and failed at an attempt to commit suicide.

But maybe the family's luck is about to change. They receive a call telling them that Olive is has been made a replacement finalist in the highly competitive Little Miss Sunshine junior beauty pageant in California. Now the family must trek out west so Olive can compete. As the family hits the road, tensions increase, secrets are revealed and the family takes an unexpected emotional journey.

Little Miss Sunshine is a sharply written and smartly directed first feature. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris manage the difficult balancing act of having compassion for their characters while skewering them. They find both sadness and hilarity in their pain and suffering. When we sit down for a dinnertime meal early on in the film, we are introduced to the tense family dynamics and fractured psyches of the members. We also immediately comprehend why Dwayne has retreated to his room and renounced speaking. Dwayne and the suicidal Frank establish something of a bond as Dwayne welcomes his uncle into the family with the scribbled greeting of "welcome to hell."

The extended Hoover clan is definitely dysfunctional. Playwright Samuel Beckett once wrote, "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness." And that's precisely the kind of humor that Dayton and Faris tap into the painful hilarity of the Hoover's unhappiness. This is comedy with the sting of reality. The gap between Richard's dreams and his reality has grown to such proportions that even he may not be able to ignore it. Sheryl loves her family yet is reaching a frustration level at being the one that has to financially and emotionally keep them all going. Plus, Grandpa can no longer cope without cocaine, Frank can't decide if life is even worth living and Dwayne looks ready to either shoot himself or his family. Only Olive seems content as she preps for her beauty contest. But one look at her oversized glasses, round tummy and scraggly hair and you know she doesn't stand a chance of winning. So from the beginning you feel like the whole trip can only end in disappointment.

But it's a credit to the filmmakers that they deliver such dark-edged humor without ever sending the audience into depression. They pull this off in two ways. One, their film is so refreshingly well made that it keeps the audience in somewhat buoyant spirits. And two, they show how it's society's perverse obsession with winning, with being successful and with fitting in that's making the Hoovers feel so inferior. The Hoovers are losers because they've never fully comprehended what kind of race they're in and they've never been given the tools they need to succeed. The filmmakers find a perfect way to convey this when the Hoover's old VW van (a symbol of sixties' counterculture) breaks down. Now they have to push the van every time they want it to start and then they have to run after it to jump in. That pretty much sums up their situation, they are always in pursuit of something, running after the American Dream.

In the end, losing almost becomes an act of defiance and social rebellion. When Olive arrives at the Little Miss Sunshine competition, we and ultimately her father are shocked and appalled by all the pre-pubescent contestants who are so heavily made up and coifed that they look like midget adults. There?s a terrifying artificiality to them and the Hoovers score a win as soon as they realize this. Dayton and Faris find a satiric goldmine in this beauty contest in miniature.

The film stumbles only rarely (as in a contrived twist involving Dwayne?s plans for the Air Force) and serves up an ensemble of fine performances. The family may be made up of misfits but the cast works together like a well-oiled machine. Little Abigail Breslin is refreshingly real and not sweet or cute. Mercifully, she?s nothing like the cloying Dakota Fanning who?s every move down to an eyelash flutter seems calculated. Dano and Carell, whose characters don?t have a lot of dialogue, prove to be masters at observing the chaos and absurdity around them.

Little Miss Sunshin e (rated R for sex, language and drug use) provides a ray of fresh talent in a summer that?s been in the shadow of such bloated fare as X-Men 3 and The Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man?s Chest . The Hoovers may be losers, but Little Miss Sunshine is a winner.

Companion viewing: recent dysfunctional families are on display in The Squid and the Whale, Garden State, Thumbsucker -----

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