Sundance favourite Little Miss Sunshine is a quirky little film that is almost impossible to categorise. Not quite drama, not out-and-out comedy, this charming and unusually understated film manages to squeeze more honesty and understanding into an hour-and-a-half than you'll get from a whole course of therapy.
The family unit comprises a randy old grandfather with a coke habit (Arkin), parents with marital problems (Kinnear and Collette), a suicidal gay uncle (Carell), a Nietzsche-obsessed teen who's taken a vow of silence (Dano) and Olive, a podgy seven-year-old who wants to be a beauty queen (Breslin).
When a stroke of luck means Olive gets to compete in the prestigious Little Miss Sunshine pageant in California, the whole family bundle their kit bags and problems into the VW to head across the continent to fulfil Olive's dreams.
Dysfunctional families are a common occurrence in independent films, but first-time directors Faris and Dayton do not merely make their characters ciphers for the jaded theme of the dissolution of the American dream. The extremely talented cast make the dysfunction fresh and amusing. This is ensemble acting at its most effective, with uniformly excellent performances. The real star, though, is Abigail Breslin as Olive, a character so fully-realised you almost forget she's seven.
The pageant itself is macabre. While not played for laughs, these sequences are among the funniest in the film. The other contestants are, of course, terrifying. The little JonBenet Ramseys are dressed like streetwalkers and held together with enough hairspray to re-enact the Hindenburg disaster. In beautiful counterpoint to Olive, each possesses the steely-eyed look of John Dillinger. Only shorter. And more sequined. And able to tap dance.
While the comedy is most certainly black, this is a remarkably uplifting, endearing and moving film. A treat.