Not since National Lampoon's Vacation has such a Whitman's Sampler of freaks crammed into a car to road trip across America as in the Sundance audience favorite and feather-light Little Miss Sunshine, whose critical and audience popularity only serves to prove the increasing mainstreaming of independent film.
This prime example of indie-quirk continues that genre's cross-pollination of art-house trappings -- oddball characters, proudly heralded human imperfection -- with the soul of the sitcom.
Chevy Chase apparently was unavailable, so directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris content themselves with Greg Kinnear as Richard, a comparable loser-dad and believer in a Dale Carnegie brand of positive thinking. Richard believes he is on the precipice of a major book deal to bring his self-help message to the masses, though the eye rolling of the rest of his close-quarters clan suggests otherwise.
Richard's wife, Sheryl (this season's ubiquitous Toni Collette), has been financially supporting the family and neutralizes her husband's motivational shtick with her own touchy-feely hippie maternalism. The remaining mixed nuts include teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano), a doom-tripping, Nietzsche-reading goth who improbably yearns to be an Air Force test pilot; and his iguana-leathery, heroin-addicted, porn-loving grumpy Grandpa (Alan Arkin), whose advice to his grandson is to "fuck a lot of women."
But the squishy center of this manufactured slice of indie feel-good is the bubbly and chubby 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin), whose fondest desire is to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant.
Lest we think directors Dayton and Faris (veterans of music video and TV commercials) are familiar with only the Sears-Roebuck side of life, they assure us they have some awareness of more elevated matters, too. Like Proust. The family is joined in its already cramped home by Sheryl's brother Frank (Steve Carell). Frank is a suicidal Proust scholar who has fallen hopelessly in love with a graduate student who has run off with the country's No. 2 Proust scholar.
As if these characters weren't wacky enough crammed into one modest tract home, Little Miss Sunshine, courtesy of the script from first-time screenwriter Michael Arndt, conspires to intensify the hilarity potential with a road trip.
With not a second to spare, the family travels en masse 700 miles from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, Calif., where the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant is being held. The highway, naturally, is littered with an utterly conventional cast of kooks and wacky incidents, from the good-ole-boy cop to the dead relative to the busted clutch that necessitates everyone running alongside their piss-yellow Volkswagen van in a reoccurring visual joke.
Like another misfire of a Sundance favorite -- Happy, Texas -- Little Miss Sunshine redeems its family of misfits by contrasting them to the artsy set's standard fish-in-the-barrel freak show, the kiddie beauty pageant. It is there that Olive's belief in Richard's main contention -- "there are two kinds of people in the world: winners and losers" -- is tested even as the pageant brings the family together.
The directors seem to suggest that, while this family is a bunch of dysfunctional misfits, their loving nature makes them superior to the grotesque, sexualized spectacle of the beauty pageant (with its demonic judges and embalmed-in-makeup little girls).
There are some admittedly inspired moments in Little Miss Sunshine, like the hospital grief counselor dispensing a humorously rehearsed brand of bureaucratic "caring," and the film's insight that the carefully packaged conventions of the kiddie pageant are a way of denying the icky sexuality of the proceedings. There is even the occasional spasm of sweetness in the film's assertion that families are their own life support system against the disappointments of the real world.
But for the most part, this calculated, family-friendly Cheaper By the Dozen for the indie crowd is a victim of the same mediocrity it celebrates.