- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 3, 2006

“Everybody just pretend to be normal, OK?” says Richard (Greg Kinnear) as he attempts a rather daring heist in “Little Miss Sunshine.” The line gets a huge laugh from the audience for Richard’s dysfunctional family is about as far from normal as a group of people can get.

“Little Miss Sunshine” could be the funniest film on offer this year. The hilarious black comedy follows a collection of misfits on a road trip from Albuquerque, N.M., to Redondo Beach, Calif., in a broken-down VW bus as they try to get 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) to California in time to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant.

Olive is an unlikely contestant, with her eyeglasses and plump figure (the young actress wears a fat suit). As played by the talented Miss Breslin, who made her debut in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs,” she’s an intense girl.

Maybe her will to win was instilled by her father, a motivational speaker with a “nine-step refuse to lose program.” It hasn’t done Richard much good, however; he can’t even get a book deal. He’s constantly ridiculed by his father (a gleefully obscene Alan Arkin), who moved in with the family when he was ejected from his retirement home for snorting heroin.

Richard’s son Dwayne (Paul Dano), on the other hand, doesn’t say a word to his father — or anyone else. The sullen teenager has taken a “vow of silence,” inspired by his hero Friedrich Nietzsche, who extolled the virtues of solitude and self-denial.

Mom Sheryl (“The Sixth Sense” Oscar-nominee Toni Collette) is the most normal of the bunch, even if she does feed her family off paper plates.

The story begins as Sheryl picks up her brother Frank (Steve Carell) from the hospital after he has attempted suicide. The nation’s (self-proclaimed) top Proust scholar explains that he was driven to despair by romantic and professional jealousy of his rival, who has won both the object of Frank’s affection and, worse, a MacArthur “genius” grant. “You fell in love with a boy?” asks an incredulous Olive.

Steve Carell was almost unknown when he was cast in “Little Miss Sunshine,” which took five years to produce. Maybe he wouldn’t have gotten such a meaty role if the filmmakers had cast it after they saw Mr. Carell in such light fare as “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” and NBC’s “The Office.”

One can feel the intellectual’s misery as Grandpa tells Frank of his retirement home, “You’re a homo, but you might be able to appreciate this. There were four women for every man.” But Frank warms up to them as much as they warm up to each other.

For all its crazy antics, “Little Miss Sunshine” is true to life. The growing closeness isn’t accompanied by fake Hallmark moments. “I hate you people,” Dwayne yells when he finally speaks. “Divorce. Bankruptcy. Suicide. You’re losers.” He later apologizes quietly, like a real teenager would do, without any big hugs.

“Little Miss Sunshine” explores the terrain of modern-day America, but husband-and-wife filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris never hit the audience over the head with a social message. In their feature debut, the directors of music videos and commercials have made a very visual film. We see beauty pageant contestants spraying fake tans on their prepubescent bodies, but instead of indulging themselves in an easy indictment of the whole tacky spectacle, the filmmakers maintain a disciplined focus on the competition’s meaning in terms of Olive’s moral and emotional growth.

First-time screenwriter Michael Arndt has written a gem of a movie that Mr. Dayton and Miss Faris have more than ably executed. The camerawork matches the pacing of the action; during that frenetic heist, the camera barely catches up to the family as they make their escape. Mr. Arndt can also thank this summer’s most talented cast for bringing his hilariously dysfunctional family to life.

***1/2

TITLE: “Little Miss Sunshine”

RATING: R (language, some sexual and drug content)

CREDITS: Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Written by Michael Arndt.

RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes

WEB SITE: www.foxsearchlight.com/

littlemisssunshine/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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