is one of the less likely Best Picture nominees ever. If the prototypical Best Picture winner is, say, "Return of the King" -- magnificent-looking, three hours long, you need to see it in a theatre rather than on TV -- "Little Miss Sunshine" is at the opposite end on most dimensions. If it wasn't for the swear words, you'd figure it was a TV movie.
The key to understanding "Little Miss Sunshine" is that it's a movie for moms. Mothers are an underserved audience segment in film (as opposed to television), so "Little Miss Sunshine" is rather refreshing in a business where most films are aimed either at males or single women. (One downside of this, however, is that Toni Collette, who has been brilliant in other character roles, is given little to do in this film full of quirky characters because, as the mom, she is the target audience's surrogate.)
"Little Miss Sunshine" offers two messages to moms:
1. Other people's families are just as crazy as your family.
2. No matter how dysfunctional your family is most of the time, it can still pull together in a crisis.
The now famous scenes of the whole normally squabbling clan push-starting the old VW microbus, then helping each other clamber onto the moving vehicle visually summarizes the second message.
I've tried to come up with a cynical objection to these messages, but, ultimately, I like them: they are a good combination of satirical realism and sentimentality.
I just wish the movie was better. For example, there's a key scene about sixty percent of the way through the movie where a character discover that he's red-green colorblind, with heartbreaking consequences. It's unrealistic that he wouldn't know already, but, worse, there's nothing that prefigures that discovery in the film. It would have been easy to write in an earlier scene where, say, the character wears a red shirt with green pants (which colorblind golfer Jack Nicklaus accidentally wore to a tournament early in his career), and the other characters assume he's intentionally doing it to be obnoxious.