When Abigail Breslin first auditioned for Little Miss Sunshine, she was just 6 years old. Her only film credit at the time was playing Mel Gibson's eternally thirsty daughter in 2002's Signs a precocious debut, certainly, but no indication that Breslin was capable of anything other than, you know, being an adorable moppet. In a sense, though, that's exactly what the now-10-year-old Breslin does so wonderfully in Sunshine she just becomes Olive Hoover, average girl with above-average dreams (e.g., winning that titular pageant), rather than playing some unnervingly self-aware mini-adult.
Olive indeed seems oblivious to her family's brittle financial and emotional state, but she's anything but a vapid brat. Breslin hints at inner worlds tucked just behind her wide, seeking eyes while also revealing, in the finest of increments, a budding grasp of the world around her. We see Olive realize she's not like the other Kewpie-doll beauty queens competing to be Little Miss Sunshine (thank gawd), but she's still innocent enough not to know just how outrageous her pageant dance routine actually is. Making us believe that isn't happenstance; it's true talent. No wonder Breslin's among the youngest Oscar nominees ever.
''It's like you're working with someone who's been in the business as long as you have,'' says veteran actor and fellow Oscar nominee Alan Arkin, recalling his final scene with Breslin, when the long-haired optimist tearfully confesses to her grandpa that she doesn't want to be a loser. ''She didn't talk to a soul about it,'' he says. ''She doesn't have an [acting] coach. She refused to talk to her mother. She wouldn't talk to me at all that morning. She was concentrating on what she wanted to do. It was sensational.''