The "Road Movie" is a rather archetypical sort of movie. Motley assorted crew travels on a quest for some Sword or Ring or whatever and eventually through the process come to know that what really matters is not that object, but themselves and the differences and bonds they have shared through their journey and various and sundry misfortunes that befall them on the voyage.
It would be a stretch to say that many of the characters in this movie end up being closer as a result of their shared journey. Many of them still possess the same reflections and angers they possess at the beginning of the movie (many of them are, after all, quite deserved). But they do know themselves better and I think for this movie thats what is important, because the message it delivers interpersonally is so clearly about how to behave better as an individual, not how to force others to behave differently or to criticize them for doing so.
The conceit of the film is simple: Little Olive has managed to get into the finals of the regional Little Miss Sunshine contest, a beauty pageant for young girls. Because of a host of circumstances, the entire family must pile into an old VW touring van and head from New Mexico up to California. The cast of characters are Abigail Breslin as Olive, Greg Kinnear as Richard (a failing self-help guru), Toni Collete as Sheryl, the matriarch holding it all together, Steve Carell as Frank, a suicidal Proust scholar, Paul Dano as Dwayne, the son so smitten with German nihilism he does not speak, and Alan Arkin as Richard's father.
The acting in this film is pitch perfect. Really hilarious and well done stuff. Carell in particular is an absolute revelation. He takes the "aw shucks" sarcasm he used to great effect in The 40 Year Old Virgin and amplifies it with a sharper edge. Alan Arkin is pretty much the most hilarious grandpa of all time, with a totally dirty mind. But he also is the only character who really makes time to care for a develop a relationship with Olive.
Kinnear's self-help quack is not very likeable. He is always telling everyone right and wrong, but not in a fascist way. A good scene is where Richard tries to moralize about Olive ordering ice cream. He implies that eating ice cream will make you fat not by stating it outright but with a condescending syllogistic call and answer with Olive, who pushes her ice cream away afterwards. He is just a jerk and the worst kind, one who claims to have all the answers.
Sheryl and Dwayne are in some sense the more controlled character, resigned to the utter insanity that is the family. Sheryl is near a breaking point because she's worked the hardest to keep everything together and it still might not work. Dwayne hates his family like any good cinematic teenager. His refusal to speak because of a certain anti-semitic German philosopher is one of the film's most hilarious aspects.
I want to hold off (mostly) on being a pretentious grad student about this movie. I want to champion it for its simple pleasures. It was hilarious. It made me laugh a lot. The acting was superb. Every single Alan Arkin rant in this movie is worth the price of admission. The movie was also dealing with some seriously heavy material. Suicide, drug addiction and pedophilia are just three of the main topics of this film's conversation. Yet each one of them in some way will be made to be absolutely hilarious.
The only "academic" thought I have right now on the movie is this- like The Catcher in the Rye this is a text which attacks phonies. Like Nietzche it has no tolerance for people whose systems of morality or worldviews have unerringly corrupted their souls. The most intolerable characters in the movie are the ones who attempt to fit everything that occurs into their own little boxes of understanding, whether its Richard's self-help crap fest or an overly uptight registration attendant at the beauty pageant. I hesitate to say any more, because I really do not know my Nietzche, but the fact that dancing plays a strong role in combating the sinister social forces the drive uptight behavior seems to me to be clearly speaking to particular passages I had read once upon a time.
Do go see this movie. It will do you right.