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MOVIE REVIEW

'Sunshine' warms with dark laughs

``Little Miss Sunshine" was this year's audience hit at the Sundance Film Festival, that arbiter of indie film coolness, and it floats into movie theaters today as a small-scale tonic after most of the summer's big bruisers have had their way with us. That said, can any film that stars Greg Kinnear and Steve Carell and that sticks to the time-honored rules of dysfunctional-family-road-trip movies really be called independent?

Only a fool would say yes, just as only a churl would be able to say no to this sunny, prefabricated charmer of a comedy.

Written by Michael Arndt and directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, ``Little Miss Sunshine" dabbles in such ``sensitive" subjects as homosexuality, suicide, child beauty pageants, drug abuse among the elderly, and Proust scholarship. It looks at the all-American obsession with winning and chortles darkly. You still come out of the movie wanting to give your family a hug.

You want to hug the Hoover family, anyway, which is surprising given how cranky and ill-fitting they seem at the start. They're middle - class suburbanites hanging on by split fingernails: dad Richard (Kinnear) is an unemployed motivational speaker desperately trying to turn his nine-step ``Refuse to Lose" program into a book deal and a national brand. Mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) is the breadwinner ready to relegate her patience and understanding to the back of the crisper drawer. Teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano, from ``L.I.E.") is a sullen ghost who reads Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence until he's old enough to escape to flight school.

The film's most sitcom-ready invention is Grandpa, a heroin-snorting scoundrel living with the family only because he was kicked out of Sunset Manor; if the character were played by anyone other than Alan Arkin, he'd be unbearable, but he is played by Arkin, so he's bluntly hilarious.

The Hoovers' twin poles of lightness and gloom are embodied by 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin), lumpy yet eternally optimistic that she can win the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, and Sheryl's brother Frank (Carell), a suicidal gay academic who sucks joy out of the air like a sponge. If his brother-in-law, Richard, is the sort of man who gets antsy at the mention of anything negative, Frank has come to accept total defeat as a welcome, even necessary development. The two cancel each other out deliciously.

Still, how much studied wackiness can a moviegoer stand? ``Little Miss Sunshine" answers: a lot. When Olive unexpectedly gets a shot at the nationals -- the regional winner turned out to be using diet pills -- the clan piles en masse into a VW bus that itself is a rapturous parody of ruined middle-class hopes. The journey from New Mexico to California may be familiar from films ranging from ``National Lampoon's Vacation" to this year's ``RV," but the movie aims a little higher (if not as high as 1996's ``The Daytrippers," arguably the genre champ). Contrived as it is, ``Sunshine" has the edge to open small wounds and the grace to heal them.

I won't spoil the particulars -- suffice to say the litany of comic disasters is complete -- and, anyway, the pleasure is in the company the movie keeps. Of the cast, Kinnear is the most tedious, Colette -- the changeling of modern movies -- the most deep-souled, Breslin the most unsinkable, and Carell the most sublimely funny. This marks the comedian's step up into semi-dramatic roles, and he comes through; ironically, the one time ``40-Year-Old Virgin" seems the most genuine human being in this movie.

A word, too, in praise of Dano's Dwayne, who says more with muteness than most actors do with dialogue. Dano, 23, has the face of a dejected old lady whose feet are killing her, and he turns his silence into a devastating commentary on the idiocy of one's own family. Dwayne knows and isn't saying what the rest of his clan has to find out on their own: that trying to win will only make you a loser, and that being yourself is the only way out of the box.

``Little Miss Sunshine" finds its own way out of the box with a beauty pageant finale that cheerfully trashes everything such events hold dear. That's an awfully easy target, but you don't mind because by then the film has earned its fellow feeling. Maybe the filmmakers pull their punches because they're not interested in crafting a dark, uncompromising ``indie movie." Maybe this is the sort of mainstream entertainment -- with just enough nutrients to make it stick -- the big studios have forgotten how to make. At the very least, it's a situation comedy that rescues the very meaning of the phrase.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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