The "Little" indie film that could

By Chris Azzopardi

"Little Miss Sunshine."

Starring Steve Carell, Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette.

Rated R.

Opens Aug. 11 at the Birmingham 8.

Whether it's the anal-retentive father or the gay suicidal literature professor, there's at least one member of the deeply fractured Hoovers in everyone's family.

Frank (Steve Carell), recently released from the hospital after trying to slit his wrists because his boyfriend dumped him, is taken under his sister Sheryl's (Toni Collette) wings.

Unfortunately, he has to deal with the rest of the family: Sheryl's husband Richard (Greg Kinnear), a hopeful motivational speaker; their children Dwayne (hilariously played by Paul Dano of "L.I.E."), a glum mute, the dorky Olive (Abigail Breslin of "Signs"), and their porn-obsessed grandfather (Alan Arkin), a heroin snorter.

Although the film title might suggest otherwise, "Little Miss Sunshine" refers to the oversexed children's beauty contest that 7-year-old Olive wants to strut her stuff in. The Hoovers, to Frank's dismay, trek from their home in New Mexico to Redondo Beach, Calif., in their yellow Volkswagen bus so Olive's dream as a beauty queen, despite her awkward look and less-than-sunny appeal, can come true.

Of course, the trip isn't without a few silly, and some heartbreaking, mishaps.

"Sunshine" isn't as bright as its title implies. Although it follows in the shadow of "National Lampoon's Family Vacation," it weaves in threads of deliciously dark comedy. The unpredictable laugh-to-tears slapstick derives from the family's dysfunction, developed from a witty script written by newcomer Michael Arndt. The balanced high-profile performances, particularly Carell's portrayal of a self-loathing non-stereotypical gay man and Kinnear's over-achieving persistence, never smother each other.

It's easy to see the reason "Little Miss Sunshine" garnered positive buzz shortly after its Sundance Film Festival run. Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton have crafted an uproariously smart indie comedy, one that will resonate with anyone who has a porn aficionado granddaddy - or any oddball family members.

"Little Miss Sunshine" is a rare comic gem that doesn't soak viewers in a sappy message. It's the film's final scene - one of the funniest of any film in recent memory - that's not only "Sunshine's" most glorious, albeit superfreaky, moment but its most endearing, too.

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