Don’t be fooled by the buoyant-sounding title. It’s clear from the start that Little Miss Sunshine isn’t all sweetness and light.

In the film’s opening scene we’re introduced to seven-year-old Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin), whose mimicry of televised beauty pageants is part cute childhood fantasy, part disturbing fixation with unrealistic ideals.

Things only get darker when Olive’s family enters the frame. The Hoovers must be one of the most dysfunctional cinema families yet, their foibles brought to life sharply by a witty script and equally compelling performances.

As father Richard Hoover, Greg Kinnear is at once disturbing and pitiable as an aspiring motivational speaker who brooks no failure from his family despite his own lacklustre career results.

His wife Sheryl (a typically impressive Toni Collette) is more forgiving as she deals with her gay brother Frank coming to stay after a suicide attempt.

Adding to the chaos is the Hoovers’ Nietzsche-obsessed son Dwayne, who professes to hate everyone and is continuing his long-running vow of silence until he gets into the air force.

Add Richard’s potty-mouthed father and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have the perfect ingredients for a dark parody of middle America.

The powerful domestic satire becomes more piercing when Olive learns she’s made the finals of the Little Miss Sunshine child beauty pageant in California, a couple of states away.

Circumstances force the whole Hoover clan -“ grandfather and Sheryl’s brother Frank included -“ into the family’s temperamental van. The vehicle is soon the scene of much of Little Miss Sunshine‘s best dialogue, and a source of humour in its own right.

Little Miss Sunshine begins bleakly but becomes more nuanced once the road trip begins. As the six unlikely travellers race against the clock to get Olive to the pageant on time, we’re given a chance to warm to them all.

Steve Carell finely balances parody and pathos as gay brother Frank, who has lost his lover and his mantle of America’s No. 1 Proust scholar to an academic rival.

Breslin is irresistible as the upbeat Olive, and even Greg Kinnear’s Richard shows his softer side after tragedy strikes en route to California.

By the time the family comes to witness the surreal sight of prepubescent glamazons, the filmmakers manage to overcome early blackness and deliver an unexpectedly uplifting film.

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