'Little Miss Sunshine' Might Be This Summer's Little-Movie-That-Could

Steve Carell, Greg Kinnear star in jokeless comedy with big box-office buzz.

BEVERLY HILLS, California — Last year, it was "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." The year before that, an under-the-radar weepfest called "The Notebook."

Every summer, an anti-blockbuster with little star power or advertising dollars comes out of nowhere to keep pace with the summer sequels, prequels and remakes, fueled by the rare, startling trait of simply being a good movie. Now, after three months of supersized pirates, heroes and missions impossible, one little-movie-that-could is bringing some unexpected "Sunshine" to the final weeks of summer 2006.

"There are no jokes in the movie!" insisted veteran actor Alan Arkin recently, making an unusual — but accurate — statement about the quirky comedy "Little Miss Sunshine." "There isn't a single joke in the movie. That's one of the things I love about it — it all comes out of pain."

What hasn't been painful, however, is the "Little Miss" box-office receipts. Continuing a slow rollout typical of such low-budget, word-of-mouth-dependent flicks, the film expanded over the weekend from seven theaters to 58. It grossed more than $25,000 per theater — an impressive feat considering that the current #1 movie, "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," averaged less than half that amount. With plans to expand nationwide this weekend, Hollywood seems to be learning that the film festival hit's unusual formula — much like the Hoover family in "Sunshine" — is anything but dysfunctional.

"Dysfunctional implies that people don't work as a unit, as a family, and these people actually do," observed Steve Carell, who learned a great deal about summer sleepers with his "Virgin" breakthrough 12 months ago. "Individually, [these characters] are all damaged and have problems, financially and emotionally. But as a whole, they do sort of work together. The unit is one that gets from point A to point B and facilitates things and is able to overcome adversity as a unit. So that's a misnomer in terms of this particular movie — that's an easy way to describe it: 'the dysfunctional-family road trip' — but they're actually more functional than they seem."

A Little Bit Of 'Sunshine'

See Steve Carell and company talk about their clunky co-star -- a VW bus -- in this exclusive preview of "Little Miss Sunshine," only on Overdrive.
"Obviously, it's a dysfunctional-family story, and that's been told before, but this one seems to ring very authentic in different ways for different people," said Greg Kinnear, who plays the dad trying to get the quirky bunch to a beauty pageant for the youngest family member.

That's because these characters might just remind you of yourself, as well as the hopelessly flawed people that we lovingly call our families. Such a realization can be a bit terrifying, however, since many people would describe the Hoover family as losers.

"I hate it [when people] call it a lovable-loser-type movie, because ultimately, it's about being yourself, and I think that makes people shine," explained Toni Collette, the "Sixth Sense" actress who plays the film's put-upon mother. "You don't feel like you're watching a movie family. You feel like you're watching a real family, and you can relate to it. And I think that's what audiences want."

"Is it a good thing for us all to be losers?" Arkin asked. "Who determines whether somebody's a winner or a loser?"

"You're not really a loser, because if you were a loser, then you must not be doing anything," explained Abigail Breslin, making the kind of observation that only a 10-year-old could state so succinctly. "But you're not really a winner either, because if you were, then you would be doing everything."

"You tend to look at a kid and see the world through their eyes," Carell said, noting that it is Breslin's beauty-pageant-wannabe Olive who is innocent enough to see the "Sunshine" characters as the winners they really are. "The fact that all of these experiences are completely new to them, they're in many ways starting out with a clean slate in life."

If there are no jokes in this comedy, however, why are audiences falling in love? Maybe it's the simple connection that these losers make with real people — or maybe it's the Hoover family vehicle. Like the Millennium Falcon or the Blues Brothers' cop car, their ride is very much a character in the film, precisely because it has character.

A decrepit piece of junk, the Hoovers' old Volkswagen Bug has no air conditioning, needs to be pushed to get into gear and has a cranky horn that won't stop honking. It's the source of many of the film's best moments — not because it's a joke but simply because it rings true with all the losers who've been there.

'Sunshine' Directors' Delight

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have finally made it to the big screen, but their joint résumé includes videos for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Korn and more.
"I had a '29 Ford that I had when I was growing up in L.A.," Arkin recalled. "And I was driving around the street one day, and the transmission just fell out. I just left it there. I didn't have a license, and I didn't have registration, so I just left the car in the middle of the street."

"When I first got to college, my grandfather was good enough to spot me his 1972 Bonneville," Kinnear said. "It was a car that was the size of a room, just enormous. There's nothing cool about going out on a date when the lady has to slip across the seat about 7 feet until she actually even gets near you. It was not a good date car."

"I've had so many really bad cars!" laughed Carell, who struggled as an actor for more than a decade before finally breaking through. "I had a VW Rabbit that I would drive back from college, and I could not turn it off because if I did, chances are it wouldn't start again."

If early box-office numbers for "Little Miss Sunshine" are any indication, Carell needn't worry about driving another lemon anytime soon.

Check out everything we've got on "Little Miss Sunshine."

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