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click to enlarge Sometimes, life is just one big, cheery yellow bus.
  • Sometimes, life is just one big, cheery yellow bus.

*Little Miss Sunshine (R)

Kimball's Twin Peak
Little Miss Sunshine has a precocious kid with giant glasses, Steve Carell and a title cloying enough to hurt your teeth and it's also depressing as hell. The plot is simple: A family drives from New Mexico to California so their young daughter can participate in a beauty pageant. But the topics that pop up along the way are far from beautiful: drug addiction, bankruptcy, death, divorce, suicide and squelched dreams. It's hard to imagine a sadder journey. Especially one that simultaneously makes you laugh.

The Hoover family is already barely keeping it together before they load themselves into a VW bus and head for the titular pageant. Sheryl (Toni Collette) hurriedly throws fast food on the table for dinner and has just taken it upon herself to care for her suicidal brother, Frank (Carell), after he leaves the hospital with bandaged wrists.

According to doctor's orders, Frank, a Proust scholar who lost his boyfriend, his job and his apartment, must never be left alone. Therefore, he shares a room with Sheryl's brooding teenage son, Dwayne (Paul Dano). There's Richard (Greg Kinnear), Sheryl's worse half, who is desperately trying to brand his self-help program on being a "winner." Richard's foul-mouthed dad (Alan Arkin) also lives in the Hoover home, having been kicked out of a retirement facility for snorting heroin.

And, of course, there's little Olive (Abigail Breslin). Olive's 7, obsessed with beauty pageants, and, despite her gap tooth and potbelly, finds out that she is now eligible to compete to be a Little Miss Sunshine because of a more scheming girl's disqualification.

But Richard's got this thing this weekend, Sheryl can't drive a stick, they can't afford to fly, and leaving Grandpa, Frank and Dwayne the run of the house is clearly a bad idea. As Olive runs herself into a tizzy, the adults again deflate. Then Richard gets down to look Olive in the eye and ask if she's sure she can win; her affirmative response is all he needs to agree to pack the herd into the bus and drive them to California.

Surely, everyone knows how these road trips go. The label on this potentially tired setup, in blinking neon, is "family dysfunction." But even with its occasional notes of wackiness, Little Miss Sunshine's script so deftly captures the emotion behind each setback that it's less like a sitcom than like a clan's real day-to-day life squashed into 101 minutes. It's a testament to what getting forced out of your own routine and head can do.

The cast is uniformly excellent, from Arkin's gruff grandfather to the role Kinnear was born to play: a smug, khaki-shorts-wearing know-it-all. As the deadline for the pageant check-in nears, everybody is so drained from their personal and collective issues that all focus touchingly turns toward fulfilling Olive's naive dream and then debating whether to shield her from it when they see all the creepy JonBenets with their expensive costumes and years-honed talents.

The moral of the story comes from Dwayne, who realizes that his dad's emphasis on always winning will screw you up but good: "Fuck beauty contests. Life is one fucking beauty contest after another."

This article first appeared in Washington City Paper.

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