Herald rating: * * * *
If you only focused on its component parts, Little Miss Sunshine could bring on a sense of deja vu.
Let's see here ... family in van heading across a large chunk of America. Greg Kinnear playing uptight jerk. Toni Collette as harried mother of oddball child. Cranky grandad. Surly teenage son. Eccentric, possibly unhinged uncle. Slapstick scenes involving dead body raising the spectre of Weekend at Bernie's ...
But Little Miss Sunshine still feels like an original, a dysfunctional family road movie which finally gives that ever-growing genre a good name. And a film which takes what seems like a predictable near-sitcom set-up and neatly blindsides you with where it goes.
Where it's going mostly, geographically speaking, is from New Mexico to California in the Hoover family's Kombi van. The clan's youngest, 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) has made the finals of the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. That means Dad Richard (Kinnear), a struggling motivational speaker, is in the driver's seat with Mom Sheryl (Collette) next to him.
In the back with Olive is her gloomy teenage brother Dwayne (Dano) who has taken a vow of silence, her scholarly Uncle Frank (Carell) who's just out of the psych ward after a suicide attempt, and her deplorable grandfather (Arkin) recently tossed out of his retirement home for drug abuse.
That might sound like too many caricatures for one vehicle - and the VW does suffer some clutch problems along the way which just adds to the tension - but debuting feature co-directors Dayton and Faris ensure the idiosyncrasies don't outweigh the characters themselves. Or their ability to occasionally show some heart beneath the bickering. Collette is, again, utterly convincing as a wife trying to keep her mind and her marriage, while Carrell's Frank is a wonder of deadpan expression and timing. He's also playing a guy who's gay, depressed and America's leading Proust academic - and you can't but help believe him.
If the obnoxious coot of a grandpa hasn't provided enough hilariously excruciating moments in the early stages, just wait until they arrive at the titular pageant where Olive, inevitably and inappropriately, steals the show.
It's a moment that crowns Little Miss Sunshine as a comedy that manages a seemingly impossible combo: it's daring and feelgood.
Verdict: Off-kilter but heartfelt comedy of a dysfunctional family trying to survive cross-country roadtrip
Cast: Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin, Abigail Breslin, Paul Dano
Directors: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
Running time: 101 mins
Rating: R13 (drug use & offensive language)
Screening: Village, Hoyts, Berkeley, Rialto cinemas