Little Miss Sunshine

Rated 3.0

Co-directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s dark road-trip comedy, about a conspicuously quirky family en route from New Mexico to a California beauty pageant, is understandably a crowd-pleaser and better than most of what’s out there, but that’s not saying much. It’s basically Vacation, dressed up to seem more sophisticated—and accordingly more self-satisfied. Michael Arndt’s script is long on shtick and melodrama but tempered with narrative efficiency and good performances. The adults are Steve Carell as a suicidal gay Proust scholar; Alan Arkin as a blunt, junk-snorting grandpa; Greg Kinnear as a D-list motivational speaker; and Toni Collette as his long-suffering wife. The youngsters are Abigail Breslin as the aspiring Little Miss Sunshine; and Paul Dano as her purse-lipped, highly sullen teenage brother. The other important character is their beleaguered, bright-yellow VW bus. A few touching and surprising moments aside, it all feels a little prefab, with family dysfunction as the indie version of a high concept. Presumably, the urbanity lets us indulge the feel-good-ism without guilt.