Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) is a seven-year-old girl whose dearest wish is to win a beauty pageant, but her dreams might be at the risk of being trampled by her troubled family. Grandfather (Alan Arkin) snorts heroin to get himself through the boredom of his days, and has been thrown out of his care home as a result, so must live with his son Richard (Greg Kinnear), a self-help guru who could do with some help for his own career. He is married to Sheryl (Toni Collette), whose Proust scholar brother Frank (Steve Carell) has just been released from hospital after a suicide attempt and also must stay with the family...
There's also a teenage son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), from Sheryl's first marriage, who has taken a vow of silence until he gets accepted into a fighter pilot academy, but really no one character stands out as more messed up than another in this family, they all have their problems and it's accepting this fact that the drama concentrates on. Little Miss Sunshine is the name of the pageant that Olive is admitted to, but she must get there soon, within the next couple of days, or she won't have a chance to compete. Which is a long winded way of explaining why all these people end up in a van heading from New Mexico to California.
This was written by Michael Arndt, who ended up winning an Oscar that year, but although his film has a feelgood ending which appealed to plenty of audiences, it's actually a rather confused work. One moment we are meant to be contemplating what wretched souls these people are, the next we are supposed to be laughing along with their little triumphs as if Richard had had a hand in the script and wanted to project a positive image to promote his lectures. Needless to say, we are not intended to like Richard all that much, and see his messages as more a form of self-delusion than any true benefit to your standing in life.
But by the end, Richard has understood his limitations and is an all right guy, going on what is known as a "journey", well, yeah, he journeys to California, but also, like the others, becomes a better person in the process, so for all its indie credentials there's a lot that is conventional Hollywood about Little Miss Sunshine. It pretends not to buy into the beauty pageant side of looking at life as divided into winners and losers as Richard does, yet either lays on the misfortune a little too thickly, or goes the other way and looks with starry eyes at the situation, with no middle ground to be seen, which makes for a fair few lurches in tone.
For all these reservations, at least the film's heart is in the right place, and it doesn't feel like a cop-out when the plainly unsuitable for the contest Olive finally gets to perform her routine which natually horrifies all those prudes among the audience and organisers. Yes, those little girl pageants can be creepy, certainly they are here, but they are such an obvious target that it would be difficult for Arndt to miss, and he doesn't. Obstacles are thrown in the family's path a-plenty, from a car horn that won't turn off to a death, but they do prevail, and presumably directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris wanted us to be on our feet cheering by the finale. It's well-played by an excellent cast, but it's as if it cannot make up its mind whether to give their characters a harsh life lesson or a sympathetic hug, and falls awkwardly between two stools as a result. Music by Mychael Danna and DeVotchKa.