Little Miss Sunshine, a raucously entertaining slice of slapstick dressed up as domestic satire, is probably best seen under the conditions in which I saw it first time around at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, in a theater full of critics so exhausted by a grueling diet of movie misery, we were ready to take to our jaded bosoms almost anything that announced itself as comedy. As far as my eye could see, the audience was laughing its head off, and though the movie doesn’t hold up quite as well in the lonely confines of a studio screening room with two others present, it’s still a pretty good night out for those who find the real world close to unbearable right now.

Not that you could call this movie about domestic infrastructure cracking beneath the weight of depression, therapeutic mumbo jumbo and rotting notions of what counts as success in America an escape vehicle. A first foray into feature films by the music-video- and commercial-making team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, this tale of an ordinary (i.e., barking mad) family on the road across America to a kiddie pageant in Redondo Beach is more alive than competent. The cheerfully cheesy filmmaking is glued together, more or less, by joie de vivre, a few inspired moments and an outstanding cast playing their cartoon roles absolutely straight. “Dysfunctional” must be the most overused word in America but, by any definition except that of novice screenwriter Michael Arndt, who bestows on this tattered bunch a ruined heroism, the Hoovers are a bunch of unraveling lower-middle-class losers straight out of Jules Feiffer, and beset by every topical social ill on Dr. Laura’s shitlist. Greg Kinnear, a mounting panic poking through his pretty-boy politician’s looks, is funny and unnerving as Richard Hoover, an aspiring motivational speaker trying in vain to peddle his 9-step Refuse to Lose program.

Any sane person would see through this recipe for successful living, let alone Richard’s heroin-snorting, porn-obsessed father (Alan Arkin, hamming over the top like the star attraction at a summer-camp talent show); his pimply teenage son (Paul Dano), a Nietzsche freak who refuses to speak until he gets accepted into the Air Force Academy; and his suicidal brother-in-law (Steve Carell, all wounded eyes and rodent nose), a Proust scholar fresh out of the funny farm after being dumped by his boyfriend for a far more successful Proust scholar. Even Richard’s chubby, bespectacled little daughter Olive (the unflappable Abigail Breslin), an unlikely but grimly determined contender in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, is only briefly taken in by her father’s shopworn rhetoric, and the tipping point comes when he stops believing it himself. Trapped together in an ailing minivan, the Hoovers bicker and curse their way westward in search of a tacky American Dream under the ball-breaking stare and matter-of-fact hardiness of matriarch Sheryl (the ever-versatile Toni Collette). The only character to escape caricature, she’s the lynchpin who gathers the movie’s energy to her, even as her warm common sense and unwavering commitment to her brood sacrifice Little Miss Sunshine’s candidacy for true satire.

Critics who damn the movie for trashing ordinary Joes miss the point. If anything, the filmmakers’ lapse into squishy redemption guarantees that the Hoovers will end up too lovable for biting social critique. For myself, I couldn’t help but admire, in a slack-jawed way, the effrontery with which Dayton and Faris shamelessly milk every cobwebbed trick in the book of farce — the adenoidal whine of a jammed car horn, Carell’s idiotic gait as he chases after the runaway bus, an inconveniently dead body flopping around as it’s hauled hither and yon. Kick yourself for laughing if you like, but if Little Miss Sunshine is, finally, too sentimental for satire, it’s precisely the farce that saves it. The climax, an unhinged horror show of JonBenét Ramsey–inspired vulgarity ineffably enhanced by Matt Winston’s uproarious turn as the salon-tanned greaseball of an MC, is spring-loaded with a nimble twist I promise you won’t see coming. And it says everything there is to say about the hypersexualization of childhood and the primal solidarity of families, however crippled, without a finger-wagging moment. For that, in this age of unctuous movie pedagogy, I’m willing to forgive it everything.

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE | Directed by JONATHAN DAYTON and VALERIE FARIS | Written by MICHAEL ARNDT | Produced by MARC TURTLETAUB, DAVID T. FRIENDLY, PETER SARAF, ALBERT BERGER and RON YERXA | Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures | At selected theaters

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