Little Miss Sunshine is achingly real, quietly farcical, bitingly sarcastic, intelligently written and absolutely laugh-out-loud funny. It might be the best movie I've seen all year -- and I've seen a lot of them.
You know from the opening shots of the angry teen doing pushups in his room decorated with posters of Friedrich Nietzche (you find out later he's taken a Nietzchian vow of silence), the frazzled mom lying about smoking to her husband, an abysmal failure of a motivational speaker, and the hospital release of the just-failed at suicide Proust scholar brother-in-law, that this is NOT a healthy family. Add to that a smack-addicted grandfather with no stopping distance between brain and tongue and a pudgy, but enthusiastic little girl who is the most unlikely beauty pageant contestant you've ever met and you know you have the makings of what is going to be an unusual road trip. This is a family so dysfunctional that they barely make it through dinner without a meltdown, much less a 800 mile trip to make little Olive believe in herself by being in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant.
Sure, some of the events along the road are predictable. But this movie is not about jokes about sex, porn, drugs, the elderly, cops or broken down vehicles. It is about how this unlikely but gut-wrenchingly real family responds to them. In the end, they function despite their individual narcissistic idiosyncrasies and, however dysfunctional they are in expressing it, their love for each other.
Alan Arkin is perfectly cast as the cranky, drug-addict grandfather. Greg Kinnear plays the part of the about-to-explode motivational speaker. Steve Carrell, in an unusual display of understatement, gets laughs as the jilted gay Proust scholar suicidal about the loss of his partner to his chief professional rival. Toni Collette is the frumpy, frazzled mom uncertain how to handle her failing marriage or her unreachable, unspeaking teenage son, played by Paul Dano. Dano nearly carries the film with only his angst-filled expressions of contempt for his family, giving a portrayal of teen suffering that is never seen in Hollywood but likely exists around the corner in your neighborhood. And Abigail Breslin steals the audience's heart, not because she is the cute beauty pageant queen untouched by the glamour of the pageant, but because she is so innocently outside of its glitzy trappings, and because, while she does not realize fully the problems of her family, she knows about them and accepts them anyway.
I don't want to tell too much and deprive you of some of the funniest scenes on the screen this year. Just go see this movie!