Call this one the little movie that could. Last January, it charmed everyone at the Sundance Film Festival and was sold to Fox Searchlight for a record $10.5 million. This January, the feature debut of directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, boasting a worldwide gross of $83 million on a puny $8 million budget, could find itself among the five Oscar nominees for Best Picture. How’d that happen? Audiences saw it and talked about it. With the release of the DVD, the talk should rise to a fever pitch. And all this for a movie that sounds like nothing more than a formula farce about a dysfunctional family from New Mexico that hops in a VW bus and heads to California, where seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) will enter the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant and teach her elders what really matters in life.
Heartwarming? Nah. These family members are way too screwed up to be sappy; that’s what makes them memorable. Besides Breslin, there’s Greg Kinnear as Dad, a motivational speaker nearing meltdown, and Mom is the superb Toni Collette, just the actress to expose the fissures in a marriage with a glance. Along for the ride are Paul Dano as their alienated teen son, Alan Arkin as Dad’s junkie father and a deadpan-hilarious Steve Carell as Mom’s brother, a Proust scholar who’s been suicidal since his stud boyfriend dumped him.
Instead of yuck, we get something yummy: a scrappy human comedy that takes an honest path to laughs and is twice as funny and touching for it. First-time screenwriter Michael Arndt is a name worth remembering. And directors Dayton and Faris Ñ their background is in music videos Ñ avoid flash to get close to the places in the heart that bruise. Their debuts are more than promising, and listening to their DVD audio commentary on the agony of bringing this “little” comedy to the screen is an object lesson on why Hollywood sucks.
DVD EXTRAS There’s not much in the bonus-feature department, just a music video (“Till the End of Time,” by DeVotchka) and four alternate endings, only one of which, shot at a roadside picnic, would have been a complete disaster. (www.rollingstones.com)