The last few weeks of August are beyond miserable. At least where moviegoing is concerned. Every so often, however, a ray of sunshine peeps through the clouds. This year that welcome beam of light belongs to Little Miss Sunshine, a winning and delightfully quirky comedy that's been steadily gaining steam at the box office for the past few weeks. With a double helping of charm, it's charming audiences by the theater-full.
Last weekend, I was among those to be enchanted by the warmhearted, spirited comedy from first-time screenwriter Michael Arndt and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. By paying close attention to their characters and allowing situations to arise naturally out of those characters' lives, this filmmaking trio accomplishes the difficult feat of making all the wackiness in Little Miss Sunshine seem logical.
The story surrounds pageant-obsessed 7-year-old Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin), who earns a chance to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in California. Her family has little choice but to help the thrilled Olive achieve her dream. So they pile into an old, yellow VW van, and embark on an 800-mile trek to L.A. That's when the fun begins.
Olive's stepfather, Richard (Greg Kinnear), is a motivational speaker who has developed a nine-step program that he's trying to sell to the larger motivational publishing chains. Throughout the road trip, he drives the family crazy with his motivational-speak about winners and losers. Worse, he plants it in Olive's head that she will win if she wants to. Trouble is, Olive, while pretty in a natural way, isn't at all like the overly-made-up, slightly eerie, living ''Barbie dolls'' she'll compete against.
Sheryl (Toni Collette), is Olive's overstressed, frantic mother, whose other child, 15-year-old Dwayne (Paul Dano), is a sullen boy undergoing an anti-social Nietzsche phase. He's taken a vow of silence and hasn't spoken a word in over nine months and communicates when necessary through paper and pen, writing succinct statements such as ''I hate everyone'' and ''Welcome to Hell.'' Richard's father (Alan Arkin) is loud, foul and sex-driven. ''Fuck as many women as you can,'' he advises Dwayne. Oh, and grandpop's a heroin addict to boot. His excuse for the addiction: He's old and can do what he wants. Into this mix arrives Sheryl's gay brother, Frank (Steve Carrell), a Proust scholar fresh from a failed suicide attempt. The family's rambunctious oddball-ness pretty much shakes Frank out of his morose stupor.
You can't even begin to imagine the trials and tribulations this dysfunctional group endure on their way to California. Let's just say it's a miracle they even make it to the pageant on time. Once there, they undergo a epiphany during a sequence that is as loony and unexpected as it is deeply heartfelt and poignant.
There's plenty of quirk for quirk's sake, but what elevates Little Miss Sunshine, what sells it -- and sells it big -- is the cast. An ensemble this skilled can't help but develop characters that go far beyond mere caricature. Carrell, whom we are so accustomed to seeing play offbeat types, is affecting as Frank, a man deeply burned by circumstances surrounding both his love life and his career. Dano is a revelation as Dwayne, and he carries off one of the film's most cathartic moments with an emotional charge that leaps off the screen.
Arkin's a hoot, and Collette and Kinnear are terrific in their roles. But it's Breslin who walks off with the Little Miss Sunshine. The youngster's ebullient performance as Olive is a guileless, honest look at a little girl with a dream. And even when that dream appears unattainable, Olive never loses her optimism. Breslin ensures we know we're in the company of a girl who, despite coming from a family that doesn't know the meaning of the words ''well-adjusted,'' is herself infinitely well-adjusted. She's the pitch pipe that brings the Hoover clan into perfect harmony.
When choosing a movie during these dawg days, Little Miss Sunshine is not just your best bet, it's the only bet that hits the jackpot, guaranteed.