Sheryl, the divine Toni Collette, is an overburdened mother in Albuquerque, where she lives with her precocious daughter Olive played by the excellent Abigail Breslin, her delightfully huffy and unhappy in the way only teenagers can be son Dwayne, played by Paul Dano and her husband Richard, a self help guru with a clue played by the always watch-able Greg Kinnear. The family is rounded out by Grandpa Edwin, a foul mouthed Alan Arkin who enjoys snorting heroin and speaking his mind. Into this family unit steps Sheryl's brother Frank played by Steve Carell, the nations foremost Proust scholar who has recently attempted suicide and needs a place to stay. Olive has been prepping for her upcoming début as a beauty queen in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. Due to a series of complications, the family are forced to set out across the country in a yellow VW bus to reach the pageant in Redondo beach, California. Despite each having their own problems and goals, they band together to get Olive to her goal. Dwayne has taken a vow of silence until he becomes a test pilot, Richard is trying to sell his self-help programme and Frank is struggling with depression.
The real strength of the movie is Michael Arndt's script which is just packed with humour and carries and emotional punch not often seen in an ostensibly comic film. He creates a world and a cast of character that are a pleasure to spend time with. The dialogue ebbs and flows with a ring of authenticity, and the stellar cast reflects this quality. As an ensemble, the cast are very well chosen. There are no weak performances but a special mention must go to Alan Arkin who is superb as Edwin.
From the opening sequence where the various characters are introduced at a family dinner, there is a sense that everyone has a real purpose and motivation in the story and that their actions which may seem random will eventually pay off at the story's denouement. Making this effort to ensure that the audience knows and likes the characters is time well spent before we set off on our road trip across the south-west United States. The various foibles of the cast are ripe for comedy and this is a very funny film. The humour is carefully balanced with the emotional depth of real human drama. These are real people not comic caricatures.
A superb film, from beginning to end the script is packed with humour and pathos. The ensemble cast are perfectly chosen and play their parts with an obvious love for the role. Even the soundtrack with cuts from Devotchka and Sufjan Stevens is apt. If you haven't seen this film yet, you really should.