A Busload Of Losers

A dysfunctional family, led by a workaholic patriarch, take a road trip, and the journey mends their wounds. This was the premise of one of 2006's most mirthless comedies, the formulaic "RV." As if to prove that God is in the details, along comes "Little Miss Sunshine." Same premise. Totally different results. This indie, a sweet, tart and smart satire about a family of losers in a world obsessed with winning, is an authentic crowd pleaser. There's been no more satisfying American comedy this year.

Greg Kinnear plays the gratingly optimistic dad of the Hoover clan, a motivational speaker with a 9-step program for success that nobody seems to want. Toni Collette is the mom, desperate to keep her fractured clan together. This is not easy when your son (Paul Dano), an en-raged, alienated Nietzsche-reading teenager, has taken a vow of total silence, and your brother (Steve Carell), a suicidal Proust scholar, has just been let out of the hospital after his boyfriend jilted him. Adding to the havoc is potty-mouthed, drug-snorting Grandpa (Alan Arkin), a diehard hedonist who has nothing but contempt for his son's rah-rah philosophy. The youngest is 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin), a sweet, plump, ungainly girl who dreams of competing in the surreally sexualized "Little Miss Sunshine" preteen beauty contest. This spurs the entire family to hit the road to California in their run-down VW bus.

These are juicy roles, and the sterling cast makes the most of them, meshing into a wonderfully eccentric ensemble. The perfect casting continues down the line to the short-tempered hospital "bereavement liaison" memorably played by Paula Newsome. Screenwriter Michael Arendt and the husband-and-wife directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris bring the Hoovers to life with swift, psychologically astute strokes and precise comic timing. Remarkably, this is his first screenplay and their first feature. "Little Miss Sunshine" won both the audience and critics awards at Sundance this year. That's usually the kiss of death: too feel-good Sundance phenoms fizzled in the real world. (Anybody remember "Happy, Texas"? "The Spitfire Grill"?) This one's the real deal.

Correction

In "A Busload of Losers" (July 24) we misspelled the name of Michael Arndt, the screenwriter of "Little Miss Sunshine," and incorrectly reported that the movie won both critics and audience awards at Sundance. In fact, it wasn't in competition.

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