Little Miss Sunshine Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Dysfunctional family features have been in vogue since the ’90s and beauty pageants are always ripe for the mockery. Yet somehow when combined in Little Miss Sunshine, the two mix into a clever comedy instead of a cobwebbed cliché.

Young Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) is ecstatic when she learns she has made it into the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in California. Unfortunately, what this means for her family is getting crammed into a VW bus and driving across the country in order to fulfil her dream. The result is nothing like Robin Williams’ latest family road trip movie catastrophe. The gags in this film are often subtler and the comedy darker.

Steve Carrell is fantastic as Uncle Frank, a man just released from the hospital after a suicide attempt over an unrequited love affair with a male student. Stuck in the bus with Greg Kinnear’s Richard — father to Olive and a motivational speaker by profession — who tells him, "sarcasm is the refuge of losers,” Frank is completely out of his comfort zone. "I am the pre-eminent Proust scholar in the United States,” he reminds himself aloud repeatedly as he finds himself pushing the bus to get it started. The Hoovers are one of the best messed-up families since the Berkmans (The Squid & The Whale) and the Tenenbaums (The Royal Tenenbaums).

Given that the married directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have episodes of Mr. Show on their resume, it’s not surprising that they chose such a sharp-witted comedy as their first feature. That a married couple did such a good job directing a film about a dysfunctional family, on the other hand, might say less about their directorial skill and more about their relatives. (Fox Searchlight)