If you've been feeling a little suicidally depressed lately (and who hasn't?), you might want to try a dose of Little Miss Sunshine, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' pitch-black comedy about a family that can't win for losing. Meet the Hoovers, Albuquerque's downwardly mobile, put-the-fun-back-in-dysfunctional representatives of the American Dream. That's Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear) at the head of the table, a motivational speaker whose nine-step "Refuse to Lose" program keeps him from admitting defeat, despite all the evidence to the contrary. And that's Sheryl Hoover (Toni Collette) at the other end - wife, mother and wage-slave, who's had it up to here with the power of positive thinking. When life hands Sheryl lemons, as it so often does, she reaches for a bucket of chicken.
Over here we have Dwayne (Paul Dano), Richard and Sheryl's Nietzsche-worshiping son, who's taken a vow of silence - he communicates via scribbled messages, Ã? la "I HATE EVERYONE" - until he flies off to the Air Force Academy next year, presumably never to return. And next to him is Olive (Abigail Breslin), the Little Miss Sunshine of Little Miss Sunshine. Like Marilyn Munster, Olive sticks out, with her air of normalcy, not to mention her sweet nature. But she also has this thing for beauty pageants, which appear to be Step Nine in her very own nine-step "Refuse to Lose" program. Alas, JonBenet Ramsey she's not. Her skin isn't bronzed. Her smile isn't plastered on. And she hasn't been coached to within an inch of her life. But maybe with the right winning attitude....
That leaves Frank (Steve Carell), Sheryl's brother, who'll be joining the family for dinner until he's once again allowed to handle sharp objects. The country's number-one Proust scholar, Frank recently lost his boyfriend to the country's number-two Proust scholar, and the resulting suicide attempt was, like everything else in his life recently, a failure. Finally, there's Grandpa (Alan Arkin), a porn-consuming, heroin-snorting Oscar the Grouch, who seems to believe that old age entitles him to say or do whatever he wants. And if this is all starting to sound like a Fox sitcom that got bumped for "Married with Children" reruns, that isn't too far off. But there's no laugh track. And the score could be described as "Music to Slit Your Wrists By."
Lest we spend the entire movie sitting around the house, watching the Hoovers stew in their own juices, scriptwriter Michael Arndt has cooked up an excuse for them to hit the road, although you may groan when you hear what it is. For reasons having little to do with her qualifications, Olive is suddenly eligible for a beauty pageant in Redondo Beach, and so it's "California, Here We Come." Luckily, the VW van breaks down almost before they reach the end of the driveway, turning Little Miss Sunshine into one of those road movies where every single mile has to be fought for. And the van itself, which the family has to push-start, becomes a potent symbol. They're running as fast as they can to keep up with their lives, even as their lives fall apart on them.
Hey, that's entertainment, as long as Little Miss Sunshine is sputtering down the highway. Sometimes, the filmmakers press too hard on the gas, driving home their message about John and Jane Q. Public having been sold a bill of goods. But as the absurdities mount, including a what-to-do-with-grandpa sequence straight out of National Lampoon's Vacation, the movie achieves a light farcical tone that's touchingly at odds with the mood everybody's in. The camerawork's rather flat, especially for directors who come out of MTV, but the acting - hilariously depressive, with nary an ironic wink at the audience - carries us through. And so does the movie's Slurpee-realism drabness, which generates the hard-earned laughs of a sad-faced clown. Winning? Winning's for losers.