Now, THIS is a movie with some seriously messed-up characters.
Greg Kinnear is a motivational speaker who's got great ideas -- but speaks in front of bored groups of a dozen or so, and his dream job has disintegrated. His dad, Alan Arkin, is a "groovy grandpa" who snorts heroin. His son Dwayne, Paul Dano, reads Nietschze, wants to be a test pilot, and hasn't spoken in nine months. (Memorably, at one point when a great road trip is proposed, he scribbles angrily on a notepad, "But I'm not going to have any fun!") Kinnear's brother-in-law Frank, the terrific comic actor Steve Carell, is a college professor, known as the nation's #1 Proust scholar, who has attempted suicide because of a love affair lost to the #2 Proust scholar.
And Toni Collette attempts to be the sane one, the wife of Kinnear, the glue of the family, and the mother of Olive, played by Abigail Breslin ("Signs", "Raising Helen"), who has won a local competition in New Mexico for the "Little Miss Sunshine" national contest, finals to be held hundreds of miles away in Redondo Beach, California.
It's made clear that this family doesn't have much money and can't fly to California, and suicidal Frank can't be left alone, so they all decide to pile into an old yellow VW bus and drive to California.
Think "Thelma and Louise" for dysfunctional families.
That's the basic setup -- I won't spoil any of the gags by revealing the rest of the plot here, only to tell you of a couple of scenes caused by an event regarding Arkin's character result in what appears to be a somber setup, punctuated by unlikable bit characters, only to have them end up in hilarity for reasons you wouldn't guess at the beginnings of the scenes.
All the characters learn things about themselves and about life during their odyssey, and it appears they become better people for it. Breslin is relentlessly cute (and, as is usual for films of this type, is actually older than the character she plays -- ten years old, as opposed to Olive, who is supposed to be seven), and speaks many of the wisest lines in the film, particularly in one great scene with her brother (a scene which needed almost no dialogue at all, incidentally).
It's ironic that I happened to see this movie on the very day that a break and arrest was finally made in the nearly ten-year-old murder case involving JonBenet Ramsey, who participated in quite a number of kiddie beauty contests much like the "Little Miss Sunshine" contest portrayed in the film. There are girls in the contest in the movie who eerily resemble JonBenet -- and the contest director is just as frightening in a number of different ways, but she gets her comeuppance, too. Olive is far too real to be in such a contest -- another lesson learned.
This is an edgy film and isn't for everyone, but I liked it -- the casting is perfect, and the characters are well-fleshed-out and seem real, unlike many other films, and the story is just quirky enough to seem real rather than contrived. It's a film about dreams, and how we all have them -- and how reality can often come and bite those dreams to pieces.