Little Miss Sunshine may signal a new genre: indie lite. A huge audience hit at Sundance this year, Little Miss Sunshine appears to be the logical distillation of 20 years of marketing independent cinema to a mass audience increasingly primed to receive it ... as long as such films hit a few familiar marks. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' film is a feel-good, semi-black road comedy, quirky enough contain both caustic asides and marginally off-beat characters, but still able to neatly wrap up a family-affirming moment.
The characters are indie stock players: over-earnest ass of a dad (Greg Kinnear); disaffected teen (Paul Dano) who would quote from his beloved Nietzsche if not for his vow of silence; and two crazy relatives ... potty-mouthed grandpa (Alan Arkin) and gay, depressed Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), the country's erstwhile No. 1 Proust scholar. Buttressing the family are frazzled mom (Toni Collette) and Olive (break-out newcomer Abigail Breslin), a tubby charmer still spared life's disappointments.
Seven-year-old Olive is determined to enter the Little Miss Sunshine kiddie beauty pageant, in Los Angeles. So after the requisite squabbling, the gang loads up the microbus and heads west.
The pageant is a narrative cheat; it seems unlikely such a family would be naïve enough to believe in Olive's success there, or even to care. But we need to get on the slab, so we can check off road-trip-movie marks: car trouble; expansive desert vistas; grim, faceless motels; diners with big-hearted waitresses and country-music jukeboxes; and the weird encounter at a gas station.
I may sound a little cynical here, but I quite enjoyed the film, even as its flaws were obvious. This is a likable gang, well played by actors cognizant that this is an ensemble piece. Collette, with the least showy role, makes the most of small details, such as her grim determination to enjoy her Popsicle.
"Act normal," Dad counsels at one point, but he protests too much. This gang is normal, struggling in its imperfect way to get by, fit in and be acknowledged. Certainly, the characters are closer to us than are those preternaturally wise kids, scrubbed-clean teens and successful architect dads that populate most mainstream family movies. Sunshine ends up as self-congratulatory as any other family-bonding-trip flick, except here we celebrate feeling good about being "weird," whether that means gay, vulgar or cynical.
Sunshine bogs down a couple times in gooey emotional moments, and it's missing the meanness that true black comedy wouldn't shy from. Nothing epitomizes the film's shimmy between calculated obviousness and warm humor more than the final 20 minutes at the beauty pageant. It's too easy a mark, a group hug is imminent ... and yet you can't help but laugh and even cheer a little bit.