At first, Abigail Breslin thought there was some kind of emergency. One minute, she was sitting at the back of a theater at last January's Sundance Film Festival, where her movie, Little Miss Sunshine, was having its premiere. The next minute, the credits were starting to roll and the entire audience was suddenly leaping to its feet and making a raucous commotion. If you're a 9-year-old kid from New York, you see 1,200 people jumping out of their seats and your brain instinctively goes into evacuation mode. ''I thought, 'Fire! Fire!''' Breslin says now with a giggle at a Beverly Hills restaurant, her small hands cupped around a mug of hot cocoa nearly the width of her head.
There was no fire, of course. But in that moment, as Little Miss Sunshine a bittersweet comedy about an oddball family's road trip to a beauty pageant in a banged-up VW bus received a rapturous standing ovation, a blaze of buzz was sparked, the kind that makes industry dealmakers start hyperventilating and frantically punching at the keypads of their Blackberries. Something about the odyssey of the disaster-prone Hoover clan won the audience's affection beyond all expectations. By the next morning, following a bidding war that raged until the wee hours, the distribution rights to the film had been snapped up by Fox Searchlight for $10.5 million, the highest price ever fetched at Sundance. Little Miss Sunshine quickly became the banner-headline story of the festival, heralded as a fresh, acerbically funny take on the dysfunctional-family road movie, sort of a National Lampoon's Vacation for the National Public Radio crowd. ''In 40 years of doing film and theater, I'd never experienced anything like the reaction we got,'' says Alan Arkin. ''Just wild enthusiasm.''
Now, eight months later, this $8 million little-indie-that-could is preparing to expand from a limited release in New York and Los Angeles to a wide national run. Previous summers have seen the occasional tiny underdog film rise out from the shadows of the big-budget blockbusters to become a surprise hit, and the makers of Sunshine are hoping that their cinematic microbus, fueled by overwhelmingly positive word of mouth, can hold its own on a freeway crowded with shiny Hummers. The month of August, when many moviegoers start to feel wrung out from all the big, splashy sequels, remakes, and special-effects extravaganzas, has historically been a welcoming time for smaller, quirkier films. And, with an impressive $499,000 in box office in its first five days in just seven theaters, Sunshine is shaping up to be this summer's It Smaller, Quirkier Film.
''We're the sorbet at the end of the summer,'' Steve Carell says with mock pomposity. ''A nice, delicate sorbet to cleanse the palate of the rich, meaty blockbusters.''
That's the idea, at least.