'Little Miss Sunshine' is the type of film that thankfully wastes little time in establishing itself and revealing the foibles of it characters. So, immediately we find Olive (the delightful Abigail Breslin) in front of the television, watching a taped beauty pageant for the winner's reaction. She stares at the moment of joy then repeats it so as to study how winners act. Next is her motivational speaker dad, Richard (Greg Kinnear) trying to pump up a near-empty room with his usual 'refuse to lose' salvo. Her brother, Dwayne (Paul Dano) pumps iron silently, determined to see through two things in life: not to speak until his silent vow runs its course and to become a pilot. Then there is the gregarious grandfather (Alan Arkin, in a too over-the-top role) who curses loudly and snorts heroin. The distant gay uncle Frank (Steve Carell) and mother Sheryl (Toni Collette) are leaving the hospital after his failed suicide attempt, which leaves big sister to come to his rescue. This may not sound like the typical American family but one of the great points of the film is that it could very well be so.
Another great point is the almost personification of the unofficial seventh member of the Hoover family: a yellow Volkswagen bus that breaks down often and hardly can slow down once it gets moving. The directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, excel at subtlety with this vehichle. They allow the van to identify as the collective strength and individual weakness of the family, yet at no point is it obvious to them but we get it because one can always see things with greater clarity if there is little personal and emotional attachment involved. The Hoover family is so intrinsically linked that their faults are irritable to each other yet act as a defense-mechanism when being assailed by strangers. All families function like this so there's no originality with the film but how it's nonchalantly presented is what makes it dark comedic intent ring true.
Of course, tension is a key element here and it erupts in several instances. Frank, as the new member to the fold, immediately triggers the most tension, mainly from Steve. The film downplays his homosexuality but presses hard on his brilliance as a scholar. Steve, resentful of the fact that he doesn't have the higher I.Q., rags him for giving up on life because of unrequited love. Frank retaliates by enlightening the others with facts that Steve is clearly unsure of. It's a mind battle that never resolves itself but one Frank wages as a means of rebelling against Steve's authority and the indifference of the family on a whole. Sheryl gets the hardest ragging because she is the one with the most roles juggling but a lot of it is internal. One can sense her despair over her ineffectiveness and she channels bitterness towards Steve as a means of placating her feelings . She places so much competivive energy on him that her children go a bit neglected or rather only get generic attention from her. The other characters are locked just as deeply within themselves. Olive, by default, gets a chance to enter the 'Little Miss Sunshine' pageant and instead of celebrating with the family, she goes running and screaming right through the house in a hurry to pack. It's a direct result of her father but neither choose to wonder what would have occured if she hadn't gotten the opportunity. Dwayne's silence is seen as a stand of sorts by Sheryl but clearly she senses something is wrong but cannot deal with the fact that she has no idea how to reach him. The film's rawest moment is her bitter defeat after he pointedly says how much he hates her. Grandpa is dealing with the most conventional issues: old age and neglect. The film conveniently kills him off without justifying his vice or explaining his bitterness and addiction. It's the lone weakness of the film full of neurotic brilliance. The film is pretty much akin to 'American Beauty' in theme and style but 'Sunshine' manages to gather towards a collective likeness of characters and a sympathethic centre. Acceptance here is won the hard way. This is because the Hoover family, despite all their flaws, is pretty damned likable. The scope of the acting brilliantly manages to make this possible. Breslin absolutely shines and there's hardly a female lead that can charge into physical despair as ungainly or quickly as Collette. Kinnear has the look of a man desparately trying to remain calm while his fears slowly consume him. You can see it all in his magnificent eyes. This is his best role since his deserved Oscar nomination in 'As Good As It Gets'.
The most sublime aspect though is the pageant itself. After barely just registering Olive in the show, even Steve realises the error of doing so. The pageant has a talent section but centres mostly on physical beauty. As the decidely imperfect audience claps on their perfect, doll-like girls parading in swim-wear and gowns, "Little Miss Sunshine" hits its darkest cues. When Olive dedicated her dance routine to her grandfather, the emcee asks of his location, Olive matter-of-factly replies that 'he's in the trunk of our car'. Of course grandpa had died the night before of a drug overdose and they had 'kidnapped' the body from the hospital and stored it in the back of the van. Olive hasn't yet learned shrewdness on this level. Sh'e more astute with her competition however: sensing her chance of winning slipping, Olive does an astonishing dance/strip routine to MC Hammer's 'U Can't Touch This' record. The moment, while totally humorous, presents a challenge to so many societal norms and raises impertinent questions but doesnt dwell on them.
All these instances involve Olive as the main reason of change but it's a change of idealism for the others, not for her. Her desire to win or at least to be the most competitive she can be finally rips through the crafted fabric of confliction that surrounds her childhood. To this end, all parties directly involved in her life recognise the blame they share and accept it humbly. They realise how confusing their secular actions have been on her all along. The film tries to patch this issue up by having Steve finally choosing to support his kid, and by extension his flawed family unit over his own blinding and selfish ambition. What it isn't able to band aid however is how greatly the damage to Olive has already manifested.