With its unique brand of pageantry, the 2006 Sundance sensation cut through the August doldrums like a yellow VW bus through the desert
Credit: Eric Lee

At first, Abigail Breslin thought there was some kind of emergency. One minute, she was sitting at the back of a theater at last January’s Sundance Film Festival, where her movie, Little Miss Sunshine, was having its premiere. The next minute, the credits were starting to roll and the entire audience was suddenly leaping to its feet and making a raucous commotion. If you’re a 9-year-old kid from New York, you see 1,200 people jumping out of their seats and your brain instinctively goes into evacuation mode. ”I thought, ‘Fire! Fire!”’ Breslin says now with a giggle at a Beverly Hills restaurant, her small hands cupped around a mug of hot cocoa nearly the width of her head.

There was no fire, of course. But in that moment, as Little Miss Sunshine — a bittersweet comedy about an oddball family’s road trip to a beauty pageant in a banged-up VW bus — received a rapturous standing ovation, a blaze of buzz was sparked, the kind that makes industry dealmakers start hyperventilating and frantically punching at the keypads of their Blackberries. Something about the odyssey of the disaster-prone Hoover clan won the audience’s affection beyond all expectations. By the next morning, following a bidding war that raged until the wee hours, the distribution rights to the film had been snapped up by Fox Searchlight for $10.5 million, the highest price ever fetched at Sundance. Little Miss Sunshine quickly became the banner-headline story of the festival, heralded as a fresh, acerbically funny take on the dysfunctional-family road movie, sort of a National Lampoon’s Vacation for the National Public Radio crowd. ”In 40 years of doing film and theater, I’d never experienced anything like the reaction we got,” says Alan Arkin. ”Just wild enthusiasm.”

Now, eight months later, this $8 million little-indie-that-could is preparing to expand from a limited release in New York and Los Angeles to a wide national run. Previous summers have seen the occasional tiny underdog film rise out from the shadows of the big-budget blockbusters to become a surprise hit, and the makers of Sunshine are hoping that their cinematic microbus, fueled by overwhelmingly positive word of mouth, can hold its own on a freeway crowded with shiny Hummers. The month of August, when many moviegoers start to feel wrung out from all the big, splashy sequels, remakes, and special-effects extravaganzas, has historically been a welcoming time for smaller, quirkier films. And, with an impressive $499,000 in box office in its first five days in just seven theaters, Sunshine is shaping up to be this summer’s It Smaller, Quirkier Film.

”We’re the sorbet at the end of the summer,” Steve Carell says with mock pomposity. ”A nice, delicate sorbet to cleanse the palate of the rich, meaty blockbusters.”

That’s the idea, at least.

That Little Miss Sunshine is around to tempt palates at all is a minor miracle, given its long and tortuous backstory. In 2001, the screenplay, written by a former assistant to Matthew Broderick named Michael Arndt, began making the rounds in Hollywood and was bought by producer Marc Turtletaub (Everything Is Illuminated) for $150,000. The project attracted the attention of several potential directors, including Goldie Hawn and Dean Parisot (Fun With Dick and Jane), but the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris locked on to it with particular passion. The two were well established as directors of highly stylish commercials and music videos — most famously, the Volkswagen ad featuring Nick Drake’s song “Pink Moon” and the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight Tonight” video — but had searched in vain for years for a feature project. Now they felt sure they’d found it. “The script had so many layers,” says Dayton. “It was funny one moment and poignant and troubling the next.”

Not everyone shared their vision, however. When Dayton and Faris pitched the project around Hollywood, the lack of interest was overwhelming, until Focus Features decided to take a chance on it. For the next two years, Focus execs argued with the filmmakers over exactly how Sunshine should be made — especially how it should be cast. Focus felt the movie needed a major star to serve as an anchor and help sell it internationally. “There was no main character, and films are made with stars,” says Faris. To make the script more attractive to a marquee name, Focus commissioned a rewrite by screenwriter Steve Conrad (The Weather Man), which made the father character the driving force of the story.

But while feelers went out all over town, no actors would close the deal. According to one source, Jim Carrey, Tom Hanks, Alec Baldwin, and Ben Stiller were all pursued. Robin Williams was interested in playing the dad, but wanted a richer deal than Focus was willing to pay. Bill Murray was courted for the gay Proust scholar role, but no one could get him to actually read the script. Finally, in October 2004, with little to show for more than two years of work, Focus decided to put the project in turnaround. “We were really dead in the water,” says Dayton. “It was devastating.”

Just when all seemed hopeless, producer Turtletaub — whose family made its fortune as owners of a loan-servicing company called the Money Store — came to the project’s rescue, checkbook in hand. He agreed to pay Focus $400,000 to get the script back and decided to put up the entire budget by himself. Quickly, Dayton and Faris worked to assemble their own ideal cast, and each actor signed on for very little pay. “When I read the screenplay, I was laughing out loud and tearing up and feeling completely elated,” Collette told EW at Sundance. “And that was just from a read!”

Still, there were creative perils to overcome. The kooky-family comedy is one of Hollywood’s more played-out genres, particularly in the indie world, and clichés appear like gaping potholes the very moment you start down that well-traveled road. “When you hear just the concept alone, all sorts of cheese bells start ringing very loudly,” Kinnear admits. Even Arndt acknowledges the whole setup was “borderline sitcom”: “I had to walk a very fine line, making it funny while also hopefully believable.”

For her part, Breslin — who’d made her adorable-moppet debut in Signs and had never even seen an R-rated movie, let alone acted in one — was just trying to wrap her mind around Little Miss Sunshine‘s less sunshiny elements, like Arkin’s character’s predilection for dropping F-bombs and snorting heroin: “A lot of times, people were laughing and I’m like, ‘I don’t get it.’ Sometimes when there’s bad language in a movie, my mom covers my ears.”

The film was shot over 30 days last summer in the Arizona deserts and Southern California, and for much of the production, the cast members were trapped together in the Hoover family’s rickety, unair-conditioned, canary yellow microbus. If the stifling temperatures and close quarters drove them to get on each other’s nerves, Dano says dryly, “it was all usable.” Unbeknownst to any of them, though, a certain extra heat was slowly gathering around one particular actor in the ensemble: Steve Carell.

One of the least-known of the cast members going in, Carell had stolen scenes in Anchorman and Bruce Almighty and won critical raves for his starring role in NBC’s white-collar-drone comedy series The Office, but was still considered a box office non-entity. “He was the biggest leap in certain ways for the financier,” says Faris. When Sunshine started production, he had just finished shooting a raunchy little sex comedy called The 40 Year-Old Virgin. No one thought all that much about it. “Steve explained the whole chest-waxing scene and his chest was still sore,” says Dayton. “We just asked, ‘Will your hair be grown back in time?’ I don’t think any of us had any sense his fortunes would change so dramatically.”

By the time Little Miss Sunshine premiered at Sundance six months later, Virgin had proven a $109 million sleeper smash, a turn of events that seemed to stun Carell more than anyone. Kinnear recalls, “At Sundance, people were coming up to Steve, saying, ‘Oh my God! The 40 Year-Old Virgin!’ I could tell this was something he was adjusting to.” He laughs. “And now, when he pulls up in his white limousine and his white fox-skin coats and Elton John sunglasses, he seems like he’s figured it out.”

Even without Carell’s newfound drawing power, Fox Searchlight president Peter Rice insists the time is ripe for an indie like Sunshine to bask in the mainstream sun. “There’s that moment in the summer where the audience is hungering for something more original,” says Rice, whose company has shown a particular knack for summer counterprogramming, from The Full Monty to Napoleon Dynamite to Garden State. “You get a wave of relief at discovering something which isn’t being presented to you on 4,000 screens with $50 million in advertising.”

Then again, in life, as in Little Miss Sunshine, success is rarely guaranteed. History is packed with examples of movies that received sloppy, wet kisses at Sundance — The Spitfire Grill; Happy, Texas; Tadpole; the list goes on — only to get snubbed by the general moviegoing audience. “It is true that at festivals, you’re in a bubble,” Kinnear says. “I still have no idea whether this movie will find an audience beyond what it’s found so far. You just don’t know.”

The real irony is, Little Miss Sunshine is all about how sick the American obsession with success is in the first place, whether that means beauty pageants or movie grosses. Which brings us back to Breslin, whose Olive is, in the end, the true heart of the film. Ask the now-10-year-old actress what her goals are for the summer and she doesn’t mention breaking You, Me and Dupree‘s box office take or locking in a Dakota Fanning-level payday for her next movie. She wants to see Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. She wants to enjoy a break from working on math. And more than anything else, she says, “I want to catch a frog.” How’s that for a little ray of sunshine?

Little Miss Sunshine
  • Movie
  • 99 minutes