You might cringe a little as Little Miss Sunshine introduces you to its misfit cast, thinking: Oh great, another smug indie movie telling us how rotten life is in Modern Middle America.
Porn-loving grandpa (Alan Arkin) snorts heroin, then trains slightly pudgy, utterly normal 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) to be a junior beauty pageant queen.
Dad (Greg Kinnear) is an uninspiring motivational speaker with a nine-step program about winners and losers, while Mom (Toni Collette) secretly smokes cigarettes, serves fried chicken from a bucket and is thisclose to losing it completely.
Meanwhile, their son (Paul Dano) hates everybody, reads Nietzche and has taken a monthslong vow of silence, and the new lodger, Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), is a suicidal, gay Proust scholar who might no longer be No. 1 in his field.
Quirky enough for you?
Then, almost without your knowing it, Little Miss Sunshine starts to take on an identity of its own, going from oddball amusing to downright hilarious, then back again.
It's still contrived, and it slips too easily into farce in the second half, but that's OK; the cast is so excellent that each character, seemingly drawn in broad strokes, finds room to become human, individual and likable (Mr. Arkin, in particular, romps away with every scene he's in, and little Abigail is the sane center of the picture).
Rarely will you see an ensemble comedy in which each person springs to life so fully - and it's a blast to watch that transformation take place.
The road-trip comedy is a big film festival favorite that should translate easily to more mainstream audiences. It's the debut film of video and commercial veterans Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, working with an inventive, quotable script from first-timer Michael Arndt.
It follows the massively, comically dysfunctional Hoover clan of Albuquerque, N.M., who get a last-minute invitation that allows Olive to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in Southern California. They pile the family into their yellow Volkswagen bus and head west, bound for a series of unfortunate coincidences and escalating misadventures.
Some are as mundane as ordering an ice cream at a restaurant; others are as important as life and death.
It's probably no surprise that these episodes will help them bond as a family: Watch them push-starting the bus, jumping in, one after the other, as it sputters to life. Symbolic, yes, but still charming and hilarious.
Little Miss Sunshine is blessed with many little grace notes of kindness, snuggled right up to raucously bawdy humor and deadpan slapstick; you know, generally, where the plot's going, but the details are just enough off-kilter to keep you hooked.
'Little Miss Sunshine'
RATING: *** stars out of ****
CAST: Toni Collette, Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell and Abigail Breslin.
DIRECTORS: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
RUNNING TIME: 1 hour, 41 minutes
MPAA RATING: R (for profanity, frank sex talk, some drug use; a sweet tone, however, prevails)