DAY IN THE SUN

Little Miss Sunshine
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Rated: R
Cast: Steve Carell, Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano
Director: Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton
WorkNameSort: Little Miss Sunshine
Our Rating: 4.00

From So You Think You Can Dance? to the Pussycat Dolls, 21st-century popular culture preaches that anybody can 'make itâ?� by trying hard and refusing to admit defeat. While generically positive on the surface, that ideology has an inherent danger: Subject your society to enough of it, and you get a Richard Hoover.

As played by Greg Kinnear in the whimsically incisive Little Miss Sunshine, Richard is a New Mexico husband and father who's pinned his family's hopes on his future as a motivational/speaker author. Not many people turn out for Richard's blandly homiletic 'Nine Stepsâ?� self-actualization lectures, but he's nonetheless certain that a publishing deal he's pursuing is going to come through and put his brood on easy street. His maniacal devotion to optimism is the only reason Richard agrees to interrupt his phoneside vigil, load the entire family in a broken-down van and make the long drive to Redondo Beach, Calif., so daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) can compete in a kiddie beauty pageant. Olive may have a poochy tummy and specs that make her resemble a friendly owl, but who better to vindicate Richard's thesis that unshakable personal focus makes losing impossible? Overnight, the Hoovers are sitting in a roadside restaurant and listening to Richard admonish Olive that real beauty queens don't order ice cream with their waffles. It's child abuse in the guise of encouragement.

Along for the ride are Richard's wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette) ' a more sensible, realistic soul ' and their teenage son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence and thus must scribble on a notepad to express how much he 'hatesâ?� everyone. Circumstances dictate that they be joined by Olive's foul-mouthed Grandpa (Alan Arkin), who's recently been booted from a retirement home for snorting heroin, and Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), a gay Proust scholar currently recovering from a personal and professional meltdown that included a suicide attempt. Oh, and the van's clutch is broken.

Little Miss Sunshine was a big hit at Sundance and is receiving a major promotional push from Fox Searchlight, which obviously considers it this summer's sleeper smash in the making. Yet audiences expecting nonstop lunacy may be surprised by how often the movie tends toward the understated. Its slower, gentler patches ' of which there are a few, perhaps even one too many ' expose it as a middle-class dramedy with recurrent dustings of the absurd. The stereotyping impulse is held at bay by uniformly excellent performers like the trusty Arkin, who infuses his character with both hilarity and warmth. Meanwhile, Carrell can convey oceans of pain with a meaningful glance stolen from behind a bushy black beard. What's it going to take for this guy to be rightfully hailed as one of the finest actors working today?

Maybe it's down to Arkin's presence, but the movie reminded me a good deal of Slums of Beverly Hills, another film that dared decry the downward mobility of the modern middle class. It's key that Richard's intended guru-dom isn't just a hobby, but a self-prescribed cure-all for the Hoovers' crippling bankruptcy. Most of the film's characters are counting on a big score of one kind or another, trusting in the great lottery that is modern life to end their day-to-day desperation. That pursuit, you may have noticed, now occupies the social space that was once taken up by humbler but more reliable quantities like job security and the fulfillment of family. Beneath its oddball veneer, Little Miss Sunshine is a knowing injunction against a society that requires every American to be a winner, when simply being a human being used to be enough.

(Opens Friday, Aug. 18, at Enzian Theater, 407-629-0054)

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