Dirs: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris. US. 2006. 100mins.
The first big hit of the 2006 SundanceFilm Festival, sold the night after its first screening last Friday to FoxSearchlight for over $10m, Little MissSunshine is a genuinely delightful comedy about a family of misfits on a roadtrip to a beauty pageant.

Playing like an independentversion of National Lampoon's Vacation,with the Hoover family here a darker, three-dimensional take on the Griswald clan, the film is a highly engaging, confidentfirst feature for Dayton and Faris and screenwriterMichael Arndt which had audiences and critics alike laughing out loud in ParkCity.

Although the film runs therisk of being a "tweener" - that awkward independentfilm like Happy Texas or The Spitfire Grill which appeals to neither mainstream or arthouseaudiences - Fox Searchlight will no doubt build the film carefully as it has inthe past with other Sundance acquisitions like Napoleon Dynamite and GardenState.

Word-of-mouth will propel itto respectable theatrical grosses, while the presenceof The 40 Year-Old Virgin himselfSteve Carell in one of the lead roles will helpbroaden its appeal on DVD and TV. International audiences will find much tolaugh at in the grotesque Americana of the piece (child beauty pageant,nine-step motivational programme), although Fox International will find itharder to establish the title outside a cult following since there are noA-list names in the cast.

Not that the performanceshere aren't outstanding. The comic ensemble - consisting principally of Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Carell,Paul Dano, Alan Arkin andAbigail Breslin - is exceptional, working seamlesslytogether while each actor creates well-realised individual characters rightdown to nine year-old Breslin (who played MelGibson's daughter in Signs).

The Hoovers are a suburbanfamily living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Richard (Kinnear)has devised a self-help system which is designed to make people "winners notlosers" and is close to signing a book deal for the nine-step programme whichwill solve the family's financial crunch. His wife Sheryl (Collette) is adivorcee struggling to keep this family together, their son Dwayne (Dano) is a Nietzsche-obsessed teen who hasn't spoken innine months, their seven year-old daughter Olive (Breslin)is obsessed with becoming a beauty queen despite bad eyesight and a paunch,Richard's father (Arkin) who lives with them is afoul-mouthed old man with a drug habit who snears ateverything.

The film starts on a Fridayas Sheryl collects her brother Frank (Carell) fromhospital after a failed suicide attempt. Frank is, he claims, America's numberone Proust scholar who has just been fired from hisjob after losing his boyfriend to America's number two Proustscholar.

When they arrive home, theydiscover that Olive has been asked to participate in the finals of the Little Miss Sunshine contest in RedondoBeach, California. Unable to afford flights, they all reluctantly pile into thefamily minivan for the epic journey to California which will be a series ofmisadventures that leaves Richard's ambitions in tatters and Dwayne talkingagain. As the van sputters onwards, the family comes together with one aim - toget Olive to the pageant on time.

Little Miss Sunshine is more subtly drawn and authentically poignant thanyour average studio family comedy, yet its laugh-factor is far higher. Thehaplessness and helplessness of the characters are a rich source of the comedybut Arndt, the directors and the actors ensure that we are not laughing withderision but with empathy.

Certainly each family memberis probably a "loser" in the lexicon of the American Dream, but the filmconcludes that the pursuit of that Dream is a waste of time, that there aremore important things in life than winning.

Production companies
Big Beach
Bona Fide Productions

Worldwide distribution
Fox Searchlight/Fox International

Executive producers
Jeb Brody
Michael Beugg

Marc Turteltaub
David S Friendly
Peter Saraf
Albert Berger & Ron Yerxa

Michael Arndt

Tim Suhrstedt

Production design
Kalina Ivanov

Pamela Martin

Mychael Danna

Main cast
Greg Kinnear
Toni Collette
Steve Carell
Paul Dano
Alan Arkin
Abigail Breslin