Little Miss Sunshine (15)

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The dysfunctional family and the road trip are two staples of American independent cinema, which occasionally combine to wonderful effect. In David O Russell's Flirting with Disaster, for instance, Ben Stiller discovered his deranged relatives in transit. By contrast, the enjoyably twisted Little Miss Sunshine involves a family, the Hoovers, already well acquainted when they hit the road.

There's dad Richard (Greg Kinnear), a struggling motivational speaker, whose studied optimism grates with his family; "pro-honesty" mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) casually discusses suicide at the dinner table with their seven-year-old daughter, Olive; their teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano) is a Nietzsche-reading misanthrope, a year into his vow of silence; and Sheryl's brother Frank (Steve Carell), newly dislodged as "the premier Proust scholar in the US", sits at their fried chicken supper with slit wrists freshly bandaged.

Then there's Richard's father (Alan Arkin), a scabrous septuagenarian recently expelled from his retirement home because of his heroin addiction. "Grandpa" has been helping Olive (Abigail Breslin) prepare her choreography for the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. But who is to take her to California? The Hoovers agree, begrudgingly, that they should all pile into the decrepit VW camper van for the trip west.

This is a lovely film, which backs up its wackiness with considerable wisdom. In a terrific cast, Carell and Arkin take the honours, the former beautifully eking out the detail of an introverted man painfully returning to life, the latter gloriously larger than life - and rushing to end it on a chemical high. "I've still got Nazi bullets in my ass," barks Arkin, eyes gleaming in that needling manner of his. Paradoxically, Grandpa's rebellious ways reflect a man at ease with his life, and whose unconventional wiles will have a profound effect on his troubled clan...

Nicholas Barber is away

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