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Little Miss Sunshine is a good film but a frustrating one. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a father and Tony Robbins-esque motivational speaker. His nine-step program has, apparently, been picked up by a literary agent who intends to shop it around to publishers. He polarizes the world into two groups, winners and losers. He, obviously, considers himself a winner. His wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) has supported him financially on his years-long quest to prove this (you know, that he's not a loser) to the rest of the world. Their son Dwayne worships Nietzsche (grossly misunderstanding, it seems, Nietzsche's whole philosophy of not worshipping anything but one's power to be) and has taken a vow of silence until he achieves his goal of attending the Air Force Academy. Their daughter (Abigail Breslin, in a brilliant and captivating performance) is a lumpy 6-ish-year-old regional beauty pageant runner-up who is invited to the state Little Miss Sunshine pageant after the winner is disqualified "for diet pills or something."

Alan Arkin plays her pageant coach and heroin-addled grandfather. Steve Carell is her gay, suicidal uncle Frank, supposedly America's pre-eminent Proust scholar, though he may be facing something of a coup amongst the literati. So that's more or less it. Fade in to Olive watching Miss America, Richard selling his self-confidence snake oil to a room full of losers, Dwayne doing calisthenics, Grandpa snorting a little H and Sheryl driving to pick up Frank -- who (judging by the gauze bandages) is suffering from a nasty case of wrist-slitting. He'll be moving in with Sheryl and the gang because he's not to be left alone.

This is a quick set-up for what is meant to be a perfectly sane reason for six people who really dislike each other to hop in a beat-up VW van and drive hundreds of miles to the ass end of California, where chaos will, inevitably, ensue. Of course the set-up isn't a good enough reason. Thank God, then, for the very handy human ability to suspend disbelief.

The thing that makes the film good is that, while these characters are very specifically drawn, they embody, in many ways, the contemporary American archetypes that make much of our country such a deeply unhappy place. We've been raised not on the desire for contentedness, but the lust for perfection. Life is a competition.

What makes Little Miss Sunshine terribly frustrating, though, is that it's not just a good film, it's the rough outline of a great film. We as survivors of the destroyed promise of happiness through success -- we remnants of a modest American Dream, hijacked, inflated and inevitably destroyed -- don't need screenwriter Michael Arndt to tell us that these missions are failed. We know that already. What I would have wanted from him is to show us how we manage to keep going in light of these failures. Little Miss Sunshine never does that. It gives us two acts of the pursuit of that failed dream, half an act of various debilitating blows and, like, a final 10-minute musical montage showing that, miraculously, they're all OK.

The most crucial segment, the coping and regrouping, never happens. Frank bumps into the object of his unrequited love, Richard confronts the agent who couldn't make his book work, and grandpa's hard drug fixation comes to a head. But there's no battle toward resolution. Olive does the pageant her way and that's meant, I suppose, as a lesson to each and every family member, but not even her transformation feels complete. Right up until the very last scene, Richard is still worried about Olive being a loser, Dwayne is still worried about Olive suffering (although, as a Nietzschean, he really should have come to terms with that by now) and Frank doesn't know how to be anything but the pre-eminent Proust scholar and subject of unrequited love.

That Olive's talent routine (though honestly a brilliant moment of physical comedy) is meant to fix all these deeply troubled people is too far a stretch. Disbelief can only be suspended so far. The build-up to that stretch, though, is inventive and silly and often hilarious, painting these portraits of despair unflinchingly though with a measure of tenderness, even toward Richard, who is, undeniably, an asshole and a danger to his children's ability to live happy lives. Or semi-happy -- as happy as you can get, I guess, in the meaningless, competition-crazed delusion we call modernity.

Little Miss Sunshine is a well-rendered and frequently beautiful portrait of broken lives flailing within a flawed system. Trying to demonstrate how those lives might repair themselves, though, is too broad a task, like trying to extend a picture past its frame.

Little Miss Sunshine
Rated: R
Directed by Jonathan Dayton
Starring Steve Carrell, Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, Abigail Breslin

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