Movie titles are inherently designed as come-ons, but some function more as warning signs. The title of Little Miss Sunshine, like that of 1998's Happiness, serves as a giant flashing sign reading "Danger: Leaden Irony Ahead." The film's premise similarly primes audiences for a shrill, misanthropic parade of All-American grotesques. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' Sundance sensation stars Greg Kinnear as a deluded third-rate motivational speaker; Alan Arkin as a heroin-sniffing, porn-obsessed, endlessly profane grandpa; Paul Dano as a Nietzsche-fixated teenager pursuing muteness as an eccentric lifestyle choice; and Steve Carell as a suicidal gay academic. Yet the film accomplishes a remarkable feat of creative alchemy by breathing life and depth into characters that, in lesser hands, could easily have come across as grating caricatures. It helps to have a cast stocked with ringers with the chops to play comedy as drama and drama as comedy.
Music-video veterans best known for fanciful works like The Smashing Pumpkins' Georges Méliès-inspired clip for "Tonight, Tonight," Dayton and Faris wisely avoid overt stylization in this tale of an unlikely beauty-pageant contender (Abigail Breslin) who travels with her ragingly dysfunctional family to the national finals of the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. Dayton and Faris' understated, empathetic direction smartly plays against the zaniness of the screenplay; even when it veers into slapstick Weekend At Bernie's territory, the film never loses its grounding in reality.
Nobody's better at conveying the anxiety and despair lurking just beneath the surface of preppy WASPs than Kinnear, whose faintly tragic striver carries the can-do spirit of the American dream to pathological levels. And though it's a little jarring to see the manic glee in Carell's eyes replaced by the detached, dead-eyed stare of the clinically depressed, his wry, thoughtful performance ensures that his character's grief and mourning registers as strongly as Kinnear's professional frustration. Little Miss Sunshine abandons its commitment to low-key naturalism for a goofy, far-fetched, crowd-pleasing climax. But by that point, the film has earned its laughs by making the audience care about characters who begin the film as broad comic types, but end it as sympathetic, fully formed, multidimensional human beings.