'Sunshine' Highlights Family Dysfunction

There's nothing like a road trip to test the strength of a relationship, but in "Little Miss Sunshine," the relationships in the Hoover family were strained before the key even turned in the ignition.

In the Jonathan Dayton/Valerie Faris co-directed comedy, patriarch Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear) wants to share his "Nine Steps" formula for success with the world, only nobody wants to learn it, including his family. His low tolerance for those with a less lofty work ethic, such as his heroin-snorting dad (Alan Arkin) and antisocial stepson Dwayne (Paul Dano), also creates resentment. Always quick with an unhelpful aphorism, he tells his plump daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) that his brother-in-law Frank (Steve Carell) attempted suicide because "He gave up on himself, which is something winners never do."

"There was a lot of cool stuff about Richard, like he was a failing motivational speaker," says Kinnear. "It's a kind of interesting dichotomy. His methodology of telling people to never give up is probably working against him, given the fact that he's probably at the point where he should entertain other ideas for a book ... [when] the whole universe is collapsing around him."

When the Hoovers head west to help realize Olive's dream of being crowned Little Miss Sunshine, Murphy's Law goes into full effect -- whether it's Richard's impending bankruptcy, Dwayne's shocking self-discovery or their constantly malfunctioning family van. Everyone's support of Olive's goal is put to the test, and at one rest stop, Richard even hints that eating ice cream would make his 7-year-old daughter fat, which in turn would hurt her beauty queen aspirations.

"I was watching and going, 'Okay, I'm just never working in movies ever again. I mean, no one is ever going to be able separate this guy from me again,'" says Kinnear. "There was a while when I was like, 'Oh my God, I hate this man so very much.' It's pretty tough. People get very uncomfortable with that [scene]."

Richard's disapproval is a legacy from his father, a foul-mouthed senior citizen who was kicked out of his assisted living community. On the trip to California, Grandpa observes his son's various failed attempts to make the Nine Steps work.

"I love the fact that as impossible as Grandpa is ... there's that moment with his son, the attempt to get closer for a minute," says Arkin. "And Richard's reaction was heartbreaking to me. You recognize that [Grandpa has] been such a pain in the a** for so long that Richard can't really let go and accept it."

No matter what their differences, the family -- even Dwayne, who's taken a vow of silence -- is united by Richard's wife Sheryl (Toni Collette), whose previous divorce is making her fight even harder to make her second marriage work.

"She's pretty much at the end of her tether when it comes to Richard's Nine Step tangent," observes Collette. "I think Sheryl is the glue that holds this family together and she would die for any member of her family. She encourages them to be who they are instead of like her husband who is putting pressure on everyone to be a winner and to be something that is unattainable, which is similar to what society does to us. She's fighting for them to all be happy I guess. It's that simple."

Despite the Hoovers' problems, Collette isn't quick to characterize them in a specific way, whether it's healthy, dysfunctional or even abnormal.

"I think life is complicated and people just want to categorize everything and put labels on everything," she muses. "I think life is too abstruse for that and I think this film somehow actually suggests that in a kind of real way. They go through many different moments and they are constantly changing. The journey that they go on is physically and metaphorically full of so many leaps and changes and abrupt turns and epiphany. I think it's really healthy to understand that it's okay to be so chaotic."

In the end, the oddball Hoovers may not fit the American ideal of a family, but they're probably a more realistic depiction of one.

"I don't think that anybody who watches the movie will think, 'There's my family,'" says Kinnear, "but I do think that everybody who sees it can watch it and see some element of this screwed up group of people and probably be able to tap into their own upbringing and family a little bit. So in that sense it's pretty universal."

"Little Miss Sunshine" opens in limited release on Wednesday, July 26 and expands nationwide Friday, Aug. 25.