A deeply dysfunctional American family heads to California in a knackered VW to enter their daughter in a pre-pubescent beauty pageant. This pitch-perfect comedy not only turns the road trip template inside-out but offers a subtle skewering of Uncle Sam's obsession with success. Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin (who won a best supporting actor Oscar) and Greg Kinnear work together seamlessly to deliver an ensemble treasure.
This splendid comedy from debut directors and husband-and-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris proves there's still mileage in the road trip comedy.
Motivational speaker Richard (Kinnear) - "luck is the word losers give to their failings" - finds himself driving his misfit family to a Californian beauty pageant.
On board his clapped-out VW camper are his "pro-honesty" wife Sheryl (Collette) and her suicidal brother Frank (Carell), a Proust scholar fresh out of hospital after his gay lover jilted him.
An irascibly splendid Alan Arkin plays Richard's foul-mouthed dad, a porn-loving pensioner with "Nazi bullets in his head" recently kicked out of an old folk's home after he was caught snorting heroin.
Olive (Abigail Breslin) is the bespectacled seven-year-old wannabe pageant winner and completing the team is brother Dwayne (Dano), an anger-fuelled teen who's taken a vow of silence until he gets in the Air Force Academy.
Bearing in mind the weight of the talent of those on board, this could have easily skidded off at the first corner. However, restrained direction and a simply marvellous script ensures it stays on the road.
The real clincher, however, is the finely tuned interaction between the slightly damaged characters, unselfish playing by a cast whose comic timing would be the envy of Rolex.
High points include a terrific scene where an increasingly wired Richard jams the VW's horn, attracting the attention of the Highway Patrol and an officer who reveals a pornography obsession.
While providing well-worked laughs, this taut comedy also makes points about human frailty, the destructive side effects of a nationally inspired will to win and the fact that beauty pageants are, well, a bit creepy.
Little Miss Sunshine provides a bright spot. Bask in it.