The bus explains everything, even though no one pauses to explain the bus. It’s a yellow Volkswagen of 1960s vintage, which can’t be the original property of paterfamilias Rich (Greg Kinnear) or suburban mom Sheryl (Toni Collette), since neither is old enough–although they do seem to be plunging more desperately into their 40s, right before your eyes. Entrepreneurial platitudes filter through his forced grin; her glance has the wariness of a secret smoker. No, these people wouldn’t have bought the hippiemobile used, either. This gear-grinding relic must belong to Grandpa (Alan Arkin), whose raunchy candor, leather vest and fanny-pack stash of heroin make him the Hoover family’s resident Walt Whitman.
Not that Whitman ever pops up among the literary references. Nietzsche is a strong presence–the Hoovers’ eerie son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), reads him continually and has decorated his bedroom with a colossal drawing of the Great Mustache–and Proust also figures prominently. (Sheryl’s brother Frank–Steve Carell–has taught Proust at a university, though more recently he’s been engaged in blowing his job and slashing his wrists, so that he’s wound up bunking with Dwayne.) But just as ownership of the bus may be tacitly understood–as things often are when a movie is good–so too may Whitman, though uncited, chant his “Song of the Open Road” all through Little Miss Sunshine, the best American comedy since Bad Santa.
Little Miss Sunshine is the story of the Hoovers’ trip in the Volkswagen bus from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, California, where their 8-year-old daughter, Olive (Abigail Breslin), is determined to compete in a children’s beauty pageant. Being one of those rare movie families who touch on reality–they’re pinched enough to set a $4 per head limit when breakfasting at a diner–the Hoovers cannot afford to fly to the pageant, nor can they in good conscience leave behind any of their number, however much they’d like to separate. So, for all of them, it’s into the cheap and capacious Volkswagen, symbol of freedoms as presumably outmoded as Grandpa’s wardrobe, to ride down a road marked Carefree Highway in pursuit not of happiness but confirmation that Olive is a winner. In Rich’s horrifying, MBA version of Nietzsche, this is necessary proof that his daughter is not a loser.
Little Miss Sunshine cannily introduces you to this situation through Frank’s numbed but intelligent eyes. Heavily bearded and gaunt, he sits as the quiet, still point amid the Hoovers’ dinner-table hubbub, patiently observing the hell to which he’s consigned himself. Not quite hell: In the previous scene you saw him picked up at the hospital, where his sister’s love came through to him (and you) thanks to the warmth and conviction of Collette’s performance. The first family bond is already established. As the road trip proceeds, more alliances will form: between Frank and silent, wax-faced Dwayne; between Dwayne and his mother (without her even knowing); and, most surprising of all, between Grandpa and his son Rich. Though they seem at first to be fighting for the soul of little Olive, Mr. Natural and Mr. Man ultimately collaborate in freeing this chubby, bespectacled, guileless kid who wants so much to be a winner.
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (making their feature debut after many music videos), with a screenplay by another splendid first-timer, Michael Arndt, Little Miss Sunshine bursts with raucous ensemble scenes, edited so that the actors are set loose, with their dialogue and sight gags flowing in swift crosscurrents. There’s even a good running joke–literally running, since it involves the need for strenuous group effort to start the bus without recourse to first gear. All that’s missing, I think, is a willingness to let reprobate characters remain unredeemed. That’s why Little Miss Sunshine maybe falls short of Bad Santa. There ought to be stench in the movie–again literally, because the plot demands it–yet nothing that stinks of the incurable is allowed to intrude.