A grating black comedy about the paralyzing fear of not being strong, successful or skinny enough, Little Miss Sunshine means to indict our national obsession with winners and the stigma of coming in second. The opening sequence introduces dad Richard (Greg Kinnear) delivering a motivational nine-step pep talk with mounting fervor. Big surprise: The very next shot reveals his audience as a few stragglers in a dingy classroom. At home, cantankerous Grandpa (Alan Arkin) settles in for his favorite leisure activity -- snorting heroin -- while mop-topped teenager Dwayne (Paul Dano) hits the weights in a sullen vow of silence under a giant Nietzsche poster.
In the next room, seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) stares through glasses at a TV beauty pageant. The camera settles in a hospital ward, on the sodden misery of Uncle Frank (Steve Carell) -- a gay Proust scholar who cut his wrists after losing his lover to an academic rival. Over his scowling face, words appear: "Little Miss Sunshine." This is called irony. With Frank sequestered in Dwayne's room on suicide watch, the bickering household gathers for dinner -- the movie pauses to chortle over a gauche Mayor McCheese cup on the table -- just as a fluke announcement makes Olive a contender for the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest. Gung-ho Richard convinces wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) to make the 700-mile drive in the family's decrepit van, and the others reluctantly sign on -- for no better reason than that's what characters in shaky farces do.
Little Miss Sunshine is the latest in a long line of Sundance clunkers, from Happy, Texas to Me and You and Everyone We Know, that seems to have developed its impression of human behavior from incomplete space transmissions. Why does Sheryl, who doesn't want to take the van because she can't drive a stick, suddenly decide when they're already on the road that she needs to learn? So the gears can go out, turning the van into a rolling junkyard that requires group pushing. How does Richard manage to sweet-talk a biker into lending him a ride? That scene, in a Preston Sturges movie, might've been a pip -- an illustration of the power of can-do optimism, that pure-grade American snake oil, to hypnotize even the skeptical. But the movie just breezes on by, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a stranger to hand over his bike. By the time the family makes a hospital getaway with a loved one in the trunk, the characters have edged from foolish to humanly unrecognizable.
The pity is that there are strains of tenderness and generosity here: An affectionate scene between Grandpa and Olive comes as sweet relief, mainly because Arkin's character momentarily becomes a person instead of a wheezy comic device. (Can anyone remember the last time the Foul-Mouthed Grandpa bit was funny?) And occasionally the directors capture an unexpected bit of beauty or freedom -- like Carell's cakewalk bolt toward the rolling van's doors, or a lyrical shot from underneath a whorled overpass.
The movie's platitudinous payoff -- winning isn't everything, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, etc. -- would go down a lot easier if Little Miss Sunshine didn't roam from scene to scene searching for new characters to patronize. A sequence with a brusque hospital "bereavement liaison" (Paula Newsome) comes off thuddingly sour, but the beauty pageant finale is the nadir. To engineer a happy ending -- the heroes mustn't look like losers -- the movie has to make everyone else look worse. Thus the contestants are made up into grotesque little kewpie whores, while the adults include a helmet-haired harridan organizer, a leering emcee and an audience of snooty stage moms. Even as a metaphor for What's Wrong with America -- "Life is just one fucking beauty contest after another," offers one character helpfully -- it goes past comic exaggeration into cruelty.
And yet Little Miss Sunshine saves its one belly laugh for this scene, which not coincidentally is the movie's only left-field surprise: Olive's glaringly inappropriate (or is it inadvertently appropriate?) talent contest specialty, one of exactly two punches the movie doesn't telegraph. (The other involves Carell's reading material, and it's not Remembrance of Things Past.) As for the rest of this desperately contrived farce -- wouldja settle for Little Miss Congeniality?