Little Miss Sunshine Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Little Miss Sunshine is being touted as one of 2006’s surprise hits because of its indie sheen and modest budget. But with a cast of strong, familiar faces (you don’t get any hotter than Steve Carell these days) and Michael Arndt’s sure-fire script, which marries feel-good and black comedy styles, it beams with confidence like a film that couldn’t miss. Set around seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) and her acceptance into the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant, the film follows her dysfunctional family trying to withstand each other and survive on the journey to the competition. Each distinct character is filled with quirky mannerisms and is crucial in upholding the chemistry. Greg Kinnear is the pompous but failed motivational speaking dad; Toni Collette is the disappointed, chain-smoking mom; Carell is the suicidal, gay uncle; Alan Arkin is the hardened, drug-addicted grandpa; Paul Dano is the angst-filled, mute-by-choice teen; Breslin is the miss sunshine in question; and let’s not forget the clutch-less VW bus, which Arndt admits was based on a real-life childhood experience. As loopy and lovable as the film is, it’s all just a build up to the big moment of the pageant. Here, Breslin shines in a hilariously provocative dance routine that brings out the family’s buried love and respect for one another in a wonderful display of unabashed unity. Dayton and Faris, better known for their work directing videos by Smashing Pumpkins and R.E.M., have set a high benchmark with their first feature. In their commentary with Arndt, they reveal all of the little improv bits and impulsive choices that made this film that much stronger. Four alternate endings are the real attraction, with the best one featuring the family running away with the trophy, but like with most of these throwaway conclusions, the directors made the right choice with the one they ended up using. Plus: Devotchka video. (Fox)