It's quite the high-wire act, the misfit family comedy Little Miss Sunshine. The Pollyanna papa, the pragmatic mama, the gay uncle, the disaffected teenager, the horny grandfather, the adorable little girl with a dream all on a road trip, in a beaten-down VW bus, with a dead body in the trunk, heading to the deeply creepy world of prepubescent beauty pageants. It just about screams ''sitcom.''
In most cases, it probably would've been. ''I was aware I had to walk a very fine line between making it funny while also making it hopefully believable,'' says first-time screenwriter Michael Arndt. He's being modest. Led by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (also making their feature debut), using Arndt's script as a guide, the cast of Little Miss Sunshine Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin, and Abigail Breslin don't just walk that line, they dance on it, creating a blissful satire of the unbending American need to be a winner.
At every turn, Sunshine feels grounded, lived-in, so when the laughs come, they stick deep into our ribs rather than float away like so much comic popcorn. ''I never thought it was about a dysfunctional family,'' says Carell, ''because to me they seemed functional. Individually, they're very tortured souls, whether it's financially or emotionally or spiritually, but once they get together and start traveling, they work like a well-oiled machine.'' Not unlike the film that spotlights them.