To some, beauty pagaents are the bane and embarrassment of Western society, especially when they focus on children. A breeding ground for paedophiles, a proliferation of the value of looks over substance in little girls, and a massive investment of time, emotion and money for the families involved.
Little Miss Sunshine sticks two fingers up in the face of organised catwalking for minors, taking the family of seven-year-old pagaent contestant Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin, Signs) on a journey that is by all accounts revelatory, emotional, and hilariously funny.
Michael Arndt's blacker than black script is handled with surprising flair by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (better known for music videos than films) as Olive, her self-obsessed self-help author father (Greg Kinnear), unsatisfied but supportive mother (Toni Collette), Nietzsche-wannabe silent brother (Paul Dano), sex-obsessed druggie grandfather (Alan Arkin), and suicidal gay professor uncle (Steve Carrell, in a surprisingly brilliant dramatic turn) drive from Albuquerque to California for the Little Miss Sunshine pagaent.
Each character is a finely crafted and non-stereotypical persona, each with their own goals and fears. Rather than develop as a triumph of one character over the oppression of their family situation, it is the rare moments of collective understanding and support that provide the most victory, and the wry sense of hope you leave the theatre with is testament to the understated and realistic filmmaking.
That is not to say that the film is without comedy - it is both pitch black and uproarious, infused with a realism that avoids the outrageous for the most part. Even the parts of the movie that push the boundaries of believability are carried through on the strength of the characters and the actors. The relationship between Dwayne (Dano) and Frank (Carrell) is especially poignant and hilarious, and one of the many high points of the film. And without giving too much away, the finale is of such brilliant satirical worth it should be shown to every mother thinking of entering her daughter in a pagaent.
One of the best films of the year.