For a hilarious look into dysfunction - American style - don't overlook "Little Miss Sunshine," the little film that flew under a lot of people's radar. A clever plot with a stellar cast, helps put the D in dysfunction. As a matter of fact, it also puts in all the vowels and certainly the Y.

Seven-year-old Olive Hoover has made the finals of the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. She plans on going to California to participate. She would like her family to attend as well, but that might be a little difficult. The Hoover's are not quite the family the sponsors of the pageant had in mind.

And what a family it is. First there is Richard, her father. Richard is a motivational speaker who can't seem to motivate anyone, but he sure knows how to let everyone around him how to be a winner. Grandpa Edwin is a drug addict and happens to be the one adult who spends any quality time with Olive to help her prepare the pageant's talent routine. Uncle Frank is a professor who has just moved in with the Hoover's because he can't be left alone following his suicide attempt. Brother Dwayne is a blind follower of Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence until he is admitted to the U.S. Air Force.

Trying to hold all of these people together is Olive's mother, Sheryl, a chain-smoking, co-dependent of the first degree.

It is this motley crew that heads to California and the beauty pageant in a late 1970s VW micro-bus. A standard family outing it is not.

Greg Kinnear is perfectly cast as Richard. Richard is so into his motivational program he is basically clueless as to what is going on in his own home.

Steve Carell does a great job as Uncle Frank. He portrays the professor with equal parts mental illness and dry humor that provides great hilarity as he meets the various familial situations that mount along the way.

The pivotal role of co-dependent momma who everyone looks toward to fix everything gives Toni Collette one of the better roles of her career. She has generally played unique characters and all of these paved the way for Sheryl. Many women (and maybe a few men) will see themselves within Sheryl.

Relative newcomer Paul Dano comes across well as brother Dwayne. He nuances his performance with more subtly than more experienced actors. This film should open a few doors for him in the near future.

Veteran actor Alan Arkin is the real gem here. His grandpa Edwin is the heart of the show.

Seldom has Hollywood painted a truer picture of American dysfunction than with "Little Miss Sunshine." Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have given a fresh take to the American family. As with all families there is humor, suffering, pain, denial and ultimately acceptance.


John Malgesini is a teacher at Umatilla High School.


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