A family coming apart at the seams comes together on a road trip filled with occasionally bizarre, but often wonderful discoveries about one another in a dark comedy co-starring Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Toni Collette and screen veteran Alan Arkin.
'Dysfunctional' just begins to describe the Hoovers. Dad Richard, never successful in any job, nevertheless sees a future as a motivational speaker.
Mom Sheryl gamely tries to support Richard's dreams; but their sulky teenaged son and her suicidal college professor brother don't make things easy.
Then there's cranky grandpa, who moved in after dabbling in illegal substances got him kicked out of a nursing home. The sole ray of sunshine in this dreary brood is seven-year-old Olive: bespectacled, slightly chubby, but full of youthful optimism:
Richard is skeptical about Olive's chances in the juvenile beauty pageant, but Sheryl won't let him crush their daughter's dreams. So the whole family piles into their dilapidated VW mini-bus and head cross-country to California.
"I knew if they were being squeezed hard enough that there would probably be some element of satisfaction for the audience ...like 'thank God I'm not in this family with this bus," says Greg Kinnear, who plays the exasperated dad.
"He ultimately is somebody who loves his daughter and certainly wants the best for this family, but when you find him he's up against it. He's kind of a facing a pretty big crisis in his life and, you know, people in those moments tend to take the mask off and you see them, 'warts and all.' I think you're catching him at a particularly bad time in his life; but I also like the hope ...the possibility that, as unfortunate a character as he was, there was something ultimately forgivable about him. He kind of manages to dig himself out of the hole he puts himself in," he says.
"You can always appear to be more intelligent than you actually are, just by saying you are something," says Steve Carell, who is sardonic brother-in-law Frank, despondent over being jilted by his lover. "The fact that he refers to himself as the 'number one Proust scholar' in the U.S. begs the question: 'when did this guy's ego become so out of check?' He definitely thinks highly of himself and I think within that there is a sadness because when this person who does not love him does not love him back, he spirals into a depression and it is not until later, when he starts connecting with these kind of crazy members of his extended family, that those layers of depression start to peel away ...just a little bit."
Alan Arkin brings acerbic wit and unexpected warmth to the often profane and abrasive character of grandpa.
"God help me, he makes complete sense to me. I understand him completely. In my own 'back-story,' he's a guy who, when he was young, he decided life is about having a lot of fun and the way to have fun is by playing saxophone in a strip joint, as many women as he can possibly have and getting drunk on Saturday night. Then his life just caught up with him to a certain extent ...like most people's. You don't realize that there is such a thing as repercussions. That's him," he says.
Australian screen star Toni Collette captures the essence of yet another American woman as over-burdened Sheryl.
"These people are spinning in their own self-important universes and although they're all living under the same roof, they are not really connecting. That's what they're actually yearning for. Then, by chance, the circumstances make them get in this car and travel across country. That experience provides them the opportunity to see who they really are; and I think once they do connect, there is a kind of safety in that and it allows them to feel comfortable in themselves so, by the end, you're watching all of these people who are so free doing something that they would never have done ...and not really caring what anyone else thinks. They're just living in the moment," she says.
Young Abigail Breslin plays Olive. Paul Dano is her sullen teenaged brother; and Little Miss Sunshine is directed by the married film making team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris from a script by Michael Arndt.