Olive (Abigal Breslin) is a young girl who dreams of winning a beauty pageant; her father Richard (Kinnear) is a wannabe Tony Robbins motivational speaker; her mother Cheryl (Collette) is sick of Richard's pipe dreams and wishes he would spend more time with the family. If anyone needs attention it's Olive's family. Her sullen, Nietzsche-loving brother Dwayne (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence; her heroin-snorting grandfather (Arkin) is bitter and twisted and her suicidal gay uncle Frank (Carell) is nursing a broken heart. Who would like to see all these elements lumped into a camper can and driven from New Mexico to California for the Little Miss Sunshine pageant?
A family of losers are always fodder for a good movie and one of the many pleasures in Little Miss Sunshine is watching them play off one another. Knowing that the film is character rather than plot-driven, first-time directors Dayton and Faris manage to pull out career-best performances from all involved. Collette manages to walk that steady line between genuine anxiety for her family's well being and nasty hen-pecking; Breslin holds her dignity despite her obsession with the world's crassest beauty pageant, while Paul Dano seems to get better with every movie and adds to his impressive CV here. But it's the bearded Carell who really shines, as his dead-behind-the-eyes stare is a million miles from his usual comedic antics.
Yes, it's one of those movies that everyone learns a lesson from, but the trio of debutant filmmakers (including writer Michael Arndt) show that it ain't what you do, it's way that you do it. Oh, and there's a real sting in the tail at the end, too.