Figurative head of the family is motivational speaker Richard (Greg Kinnear), whose strive-to-win, contempt-for-losing attitude affects every aspect of his professional and personal life. His wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) struggles to present a sense of normalcy to her brood with take-out fried chicken dinners and full support of their goals, although her barely-concealed impatience with Richard's philosophy reveals the true tension in their marriage. Further challenging the appearance of domestic normalcy is Sheryl's brother Frank (Steve Carell), a former professor staying at the Hoover household following a failed suicide attempt over the loss of his job and homosexual, graduate-student lover to a professional rival. As a safety precaution, Frank is never to be left alone, leaving his nephew Dwayne (Paul Dano) in the role of unofficial guardian. Dwayne, a Nietzsche disciple who has undertaken a vow of silence until he can join the Air Force, communicates with his family by scribbling notes on a pad of paper. Adding to the volatility is Richard's dad, Grandpa (Alan Arkin), a dirty-minded, foul-mouthed old man secretly addicted to heroin.
What emotionally binds the disparate clan is its youngest member Olive (Abigail Breslin). Fascinated by the world of beauty pageants, the sweet-natured seven-year-old, with her big, round glasses and plump features, looks nothing like the typical big-haired, mascara-wearing contestants associated with the highly aggressive culture of child beauty contests. However, when the winner of the Albuquerque competition gets disqualified, bumping runner-up Olive to de-facto representative, the family must pile into their scarcely functioning Volkswagen bus to embark on a last-minute trip to the Little Miss Sunshine national pageant in Southern California.
With its unlikely combination of edgy satire and a message of family unity in the face of internal and external adversity, it comes as no surprise that "Little Miss Sunshine" emerged as the most highly sought-after film to debut at this year's Sundance Film Festival. A bidding war that ended in Fox Searchlight coughing up a reported $10.5 million for distribution rights demonstrated not only the immediate impact of the pic on Park City audiences, but a larger vote of confidence in its potential for widespread commercial appeal. Much of this can be attributed directly to the collection of performances: Kinnear maneuvers ably from the overbearing father to the clan head who creatively leads when crises arise, while Collette again deftly masters the role of a matriarch dealing with insanities small and large to keep her family together. And while "Little Miss Sunshine" is inarguably an ensemble piece, Carrell, fresh from his success in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," proves himself again as the deserving center of a bigscreen production, delivering yet another subtle turn as the universal loser in whose redemption the audience loves to rejoice. Starring Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, Greg Kinnear, Abigail Breslin, Paul Dano and Alan Arkin. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Written by Michael Arndt. Produced by Marc Turtletaub, David T. Friendly, Peter Saraf, Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa. A Fox Searchlight release. Comedy. Rated R for language, some sex and drug content. Running time: 101 min