"There are two kinds of people," Richard (Greg Kinnear) says. "Winners and losers."
Richard's family have to put up with this kind of talk a fair amount. He's an ambitious, would-be motivational speaker continually peddling his "nine steps" to a successful life.
It's no accident that the father in "Little Miss Sunshine" is continually pushing the idea of "winners and losers." From its very title, this is a film fairly explicitly about events that produce one winner and a score of losers - the beauty pageant. In this case it's the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant, for seven and eight-year old girls. With the region's winner disqualified, Richard's family receives a call at the beginning of the film informing them that Olive (Abigail Breslin) is eligible to compete.
Regardless of how adorable and sweet Olive is, the deck seems to be pretty stacked against her genetically. Let's just say that she does not exactly come from a family of "winners." Her grandfather (Alan Arkin) was recently kicked out of his retirement home. He's an abrasive, F-word spewing junky - who also happens to be the one helping her learn and rehearse her dance routine. Her uncle Frank (Steve Carell) is America's #1 Marcel Proust scholar. He recently tried to kill himself after being spurned by one of his male graduate students. Olive's teenage brother Dwayne (Paul Dano) is obsessed with Nietzsche and has taken an oath of silence until he reaches his goal - becoming a fighter jet pilot. He communicates via expressions and a notepad. Early on he writes to his uncle "I hate everyone." When Frank asks about his family Dwayne underlines "everyone" a few times. Only the mother Sheryl (Toni Collette) seems to avoid any oddball lapses. It's this diverse crew that will make a road trip from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Los Angeles in a broken-down Volkswagen bus. It's at that point that Murphy's Law comes into full effect to rich comedic results and plenty of laugh-out-loud moments.
That's about all the plot description a responsible critic should give. There are far too many surprises, plot twists, and seemingly impenetrable obstacles that our heroes must endure in their mad dash to the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant.
It's this theme of "winners and losers" that is one of the film's most compelling ideas. Independent film is, by its very nature, generally about the "loser," this film being a clear example of it. It's primarily in independent films where you find the celebration of geeks, eccentrics, artists, minorities, dissidents, and those who fail to meet the common definitions of success.
Take just about any genre and this difference can be seen. Consider movies made for or about teenagers. On the mainstream side you've got "American Pie," "She's All That," "Varsity Blues," "Van Wilder," "Clueless," "Bring it On," and "Mean Girls." Basically a bunch of movies about beautiful, popular, perfect people. You've got the celebration of the jock culture and the high school social butterflies. Important note: I'm not bashing these films - many of them are great and occupy space on my DVD shelf. With studio, high-budget, mainstream films you've got to aim for mainstream values. Try the independent world and there's a different picture of teenage life: "Ghost World," "Welcome to the Dollhouse," "Kids," "Ken Park," "Napoleon Dynamite," "Clerks," "Slums of Beverly Hills," "L.I.E.," "Me and You and Everyone We Know," and "But I'm a Cheerleader."
Regardless of whether a film trumpets mainstream or minority values what matters are the characters. And that's where "Little Miss Sunshine" triumphs. It took me awhile, but by the end of the film - once the climax hits (and oh does it ever hit hard) - you're a part of the family.
It's with that thought in mind that a second viewing might be even better than the first. Having already seen the film once you've developed a relationship with the characters and can jump onboard their little yellow VW bus right from the beginning.