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Every now and then, amidst the summer blockbusters and unrealistically romantic comedies, a small film comes along that promises to provide a respite from the wild explosions and happy endings of all films typically Hollywood. This summer’s foray into the alternative, “Little Miss Sunshine,” is a shining beacon of intelligence, layered performances, and great writing. Sliding its way into the family road trip sub-genre by way of VW Bus, “Sunshine” could, and should, become the sleeper hit of the summer.

The Hoover family is beyond dysfunctional: Dwayne (Paul Dano) is a teenage follower of Nietzsche and doesn’t speak; Sheryl (Toni Collette) is never home; Richard (Greg Kinnear) is fixated on developing his nine-step program for success, Grandpa (Alan Arkin) is preoccupied with the prospect of his own death; and seven-year-old, beauty pageant-obsessed Olive (Abigail Breslin) is lost in the shuffle.

Adding some spice to the Hoover household is the arrival of Sheryl’s brother, Frank (Steve Carell), who, after a failed relationship and subsequent suicide attempt, is left in his sister’s care. That same day, Olive receives the biggest news of her young life; she gets to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in Redondo Beach, California. Intent on not disappointing the youngest Hoover, the entire clan boards a hilariously decrepit VW Bus and heads for California–with what’s left of their sanity in tow.

Tight quarters can do a lot for forced interaction. Cramming six people in a VW Bus for two days is no exception. During the course of events, each family member succumbs to an evaluation of his or her own self-worth–and some are hit harder than others. To those hit hard, it’s a horrific blow. Circumstances happen to make these revelations hilarious, but somehow, at the same time, both heartbreaking and eye-opening.

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris do a fine job; comedy replaces tragedy at all the right moments–important for maintaining that oh-so-delicate balance that makes black comedy work. In directing your first feature film, it helps to have the kind of stellar cast assembled for “Sunshine.” Most notable amongst them is Steve Carell, whose serious turn proves yet again that comedians can take on dramatic roles–and quite successfully at that.

I encourage all those seeking refuge from the current bevy of over-budgeted Hollywood movies to check out “Little Miss Sunshine.” If anything, it’s sure to make you feel better about your own family.

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