Steve Carell (Forty Year Old Virgin), a gay philosophy don whose failed romance and subsequent sacking led him to attempt suicide, comes to stay with his sister (Toni Colette) and her not-so-successful ‘success guru’ husband Greg Kinnear. Little daughter Olive (a mesmerizing Abigail Breslin) has won entry to the Little Miss Sunshine finals in California. The hard-up family can’t afford to fly, so it’s drive time. Grandpa, an effing and drug-taking Alan Arkin, has devised Olive’s unseen routine. And teenager Paul Dano has taken a nihilist vow of silence and communicates only through a notepad. True to road-movie form, the journey is not about the miles, but the people. And of course best laid plans are meant to go astray.
The source of the film’s many joys is the head-on clash of personalities, as each member faces up to their failure or fear of it. What is success? And who says? The cast bring the house down with looks and the briefest of words. The tea-time scene-setter when innocent Olive asks why her uncle has bandaged wrists is a tour de force of comic timing. Even the car gets some quirky comedy: a clapped out clutch leads to a literally running gag as the family have to outpace it to jump in. Even the faulty horn gets laughs.
Still, the slapstick jolt is a surprise. A body in the boot? Some will find the change of gear undermines the subtlety that’s gone before. And yet others in the audience found it almost asphyxiatingly funny. Sunshine delights in wrong-footing you at almost every turn, which is a kind of pleasure in itself. The offbeat tone is so well-done the film gets away with some corny love-you moments – precisely because you’re not sure whether there’s a purple punchline in the offing.
Good-natured, sweet even, Sunshine is nowhere near as trite as the ironic title. And when Olive’s moment finally comes, you still won’t know what to expect. Taking a swipe at the forces that try to mould us, there’s an anti-establishment agenda here if you want it – crudely, with the drug-snorting Grandpa urging the Nietzsche-loving tee-shirted (“Jesus was wrong”) teen to have lots of promiscuous sex. But most effectively and poignantly when Olive tearfully worries she’ll lose – “because daddy doesn’t like losers”. The whole cast shine – and we’ll hopefully be seeing a lot more of the underrated Greg Kinnear. But this is Abigail Breslin’s film: if Little Miss Sunshine is a talent contest – then the girl’s a winner.