Alan Arkin, Paul Dano and Steve Carell, Little Miss Sunshine
Amidst all the pillaging pirates and soaring superheroes of this summer movie season, keep an eye out for a plucky little yellow VW bus, because that's one ride you won't want to miss. Now in select theaters, Little Miss Sunshine follows a dysfunctional bunch — Dad (Greg Kinnear) is a low-rent Tony Robbins, the Nietzsche-loving son (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence, Grandpa (Alan Arkin) is an oversexed druggie, and Uncle Frank (Steve Carell) is a gay and suicidal Proust scholar — as they and Mom (Toni Collette) escort young Olive (Abigail Breslin) through three states to a beauty pageant. Driving this vehicle, so to speak, was the husband-and-wife directing team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, whose music-video background wouldn't necessarily make them the first pick for such dramatically and comedically resonant fare.

"We knew this was the project for us because it wasn't a music-video director's piece," says Dayton. "It was hopefully not what you'd expect from [us]." That said, the oft-covered themes in the film did give them some pause before diving in. "When we first read this script [by Michael Arndt]," Faris says, "we were like, 'Hmm, I don't know. Beauty pageant?' It sounded bad." Adds Dayton, "'Road movie? Dysfunctional family?' It had all these things that didn't sound very appealing. But what's great about the script is that it takes this genre and turns it on its ear, and that meant a lot to us."

Casting the feature offered some surprises. While Kinnear was always in the helmers' minds for Richard, and Collette was deemed "perfect" for Sheryl, deciding on Carell — who at the time had yet to "take off" as The Office's bossman or The 40 Year Old Virgin — wasn't a slam dunk. "Steve was the biggest leap for us," Faris admits, "because he was the one we knew the least about in terms of doing this kind of role. But the minute we started rehearsing with him, it was clear that it was going to be easy." Adds Dayton, "Steve is one of those great performers who is very funny, but doesn't need to be funny every moment. There's none of that neediness there. We always felt that he was an incredibly smart actor, even when he took on the silliest of roles [e.g., Anchorman]. He was very focused here."

As for inviting the likes of film vet Alan Arkin to put himself in the hands of not one but two music-video directors... "I can only say that we had jitters," Faris shares with a laugh. "Even first talking with him on the phone, it's like, 'God, it's Alan Arkin.' But he got it so thoroughly. We knew that he loved the character."

As alluded to earlier, another major character in this odyssey is that VW bus, which, thanks to a stripped clutch, the family has to push-start and then leap into one at a time — several times throughout the film. "We had a stunt coordinator [on hand] but what was so beautiful is that everyone said, 'I'm going to do it. No stunt doubles,'" Dayton recalls. "That was so important to the shoot because it showed that the actors were so committed, that they loved what they were doing and were eager to dive in."

Does li'l Olive survive the trip to put in her bid at the Little Miss Sunshine pageant? And if so, just what kind of routine has crafty grandpa choreographed for her? Let's just say that the culmination of this road trip is unexpected, unbridled and audience-pleasing to the max. Delivering such a satisfying final act, says Dayton, "was tricky, because we knew it had to end with a bang, and yet it was probably the least scripted part of the movie. There was a lot of pressure."

But will the applause and cheers for this summer sleeper, its clever script and its many memorable performances, linger on until Oscar time? Relatively new to the big-screen-feature game, Dayton is keeping things in perspective.

"It's all certainly something [Valerie and I] know very little about, let's start there," he says. "I think it's fun that this is counterprogramming to all the blockbusters and effects-filled movies; you have this little engine that could, hopefully. As far as people remembering these performances in the fall, I hope they do. I really hope they do, because these people really worked hard."

With special thanks to Brad Balfour at TimesSquare.com

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