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“Little Miss Sunshine”

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Written by Michael Arndt

Starring: Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Abigail Breslin, Paul Dano and Alan Arkin

Rated R/101 minutes

Released Aug. 18, 2006

Three-and-a-half out of four stars

The Hoover family fits in its Twinkie-esque, VW bus like Crayola Crayons, stiffly sitting apart from one another, wrapped in convenient labels like Sunny Disposition and Gay Proust Scholar.

The characters in “Little Miss Sunshine” are so meticulously arranged and sharpened and hued with indie-friendly idiosyncrasies that they’re barely believable as real people-more like a chromatic lineup of therapy cases-but it’s those very exaggerations that color in the lines of a standard road trip plot with lots of comedic splash.

“Sunshine” was picked up at the Sundance Film Festival this year for the “It’d Better Be Good, or At Least Bankable” price of $10 million. It is good-sometimes great-and certainly has a crowd-pleaser in the form of “Office” manager Steve Carell as the aforementioned Proust scholar, Frank. He’s clinically depressed after his male lover (and student) leaves him, so the men in the clean white coats throw him from the frying pan and into the fire-they place him in the care of his sister, Sheryl (Toni Collette) and her demented family, every member of which has nurtured his or her neuroses as if they might be needed for a wacky comedy someday.

Sheryl’s husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) is the proud purveyor of self-helpisms, himself the author of one of those multi-step programs that’s supposed to pump up soulless businessmen like?well, himself.

Grandpa (Alan Arkin) is the stereotypical Dirty Old Man who makes coke-snorting, lady-leering and cussing cute because he’s wrinkly and loud.

Dwayne (Paul Dano) is the angst-ridden teenage son who’s trying to fulfill a vow of silence not so much because he’s angry, but so he can supply the movie with lots of fun moments in which he stubbornly communicates via pen and paper.

Rounding out the clan is pint-sized Olive (Abigail Breslin), well on her way to her own messed-up life as she competes in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, a beauty and talent competition for 8-year-old little wannabe bulimics.

It’s that competition to which the Hoover family is driving in its sponge-cake-yellow VW bus, personalities buzzing and bumping against one another like angry bees in a hive.

The script, by first-timer Michael Arndt, takes no prisoners as it piles on the quirk, but he also infuses his characters with enough humanity to offset the artificiality. The performances are all excellent, from Kinnear’s dogged pragmatism to Breslin’s endangered hopefulness. Even Arkin, saddled with the Dirty Old Man role, gets a laugh with a simple, well-timed nose blow.

“Little Miss Sunshine” is precious and contrived and downright likeable-an odd combination, but a successful one.