This episode in the life of a busy family begins concisely at the dinner table. A bucket of fried chicken and sides is only one cue that each body and mind is too preoccupied with other things to worry about healthy eating. Dad Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker trying to make his fortune with a new nine-step program he's developed. The one person he's sold for sure is himself, even raking his family with the rapid-fire jargon, an annoyance to those within earshot but one of many fine examples of how this movie develops its characters with simple action and dialogue.
We know, for example, that wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) is a frustrated menial worker by her vacant look and the name tag still firmly attached to her chest. She's just picked up her brother Frank (Steve Carell), a Proust scholar recently institutionalized because of an attemted suicide. Part of his release hinges on constant supervision, so Cheryl moves him into the bedroom of his nephew Dwayne (Paul Dano), who hasn't spoken for nine months after taking a vow of silence brought on by Nietzsche.
This family is uprooted and sent west by the luck of its youngest member, Olive (Abigail Breslin), who has at the last minute been invited to compete in the national Little Miss Sunshine pageant for little girls. Pudgy and bespectacled, Olive doesn't have the beauty queen look, but she's been training with grandpa (Alan Arkin) and no one questions her motivation. Well, maybe dad: Do you believe you'll win? he asks, invoking step four or five, we can't know for sure. Because, he says on bended knee, there's no point in entering a contest if you don't believe you have a chance. But if you believe you'll win, you will. Richard will eat his words, but they will have many more implications than he intended.
After the brief intro, we are on the road. Most of the action takes place in the VW, but this isn't a stuffy or boring ride. Grandpa gets the conversation going by asking his 15-year-old grandson if he's getting any. Have sex with a lot of girls, he insists, "especially that young stuff." You're both jail bait, he advises it's beautiful.
It's great to find a movie where you have to pay close attention to the conversation to figure out who these people are. During a pit stop at a diner, Frank is explaining to Olive the Latin root for a la mode, and Richard tells him to shut up. He's more interested in scaring her away from her ice cream, unless she wants to be fat. It's a telling moment, perhaps played a little too forcefully, but effective.
Writer Michael Arndt and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris go a little too far at times, but bigger problems happen when they don't go far enough. Richard, for example, has spent the entire film worrying about his fledgling business, but we're left without a clue as to how it turns out. More bothersome is the gradual disappearance of other characters, especially our Proust scholar, Frank. Quiet and aching over some bad luck in his life, he's set up to be the most interesting character only to fade out late in the story as it settles into a moral on American fascination with physical beauty.
If we find the ending less interesting than the rest, it's because the movie accidentally gets too big for itself. There's a race to get Olive to the pageant on time, getting her ready while realizing (only now?) that beauty pageants for little girls are sick. The family does get a better idea of what it means to win, but there's also a lot left unsaid and unaccounted for. "Little Miss Sunshine" is an entertaining and occasionally insightful story that just finds itself with too much to say. It's the road movie that gave up and turned around before it got to the end. (R) 99 min. *** S