The first act of the satirical comedy Little Miss Sunshine has an affable scattershot loopiness. Frank (Steve Carell), an English professor hospitalized after a suicide attempt (he broke down upon losing his male grad-student lover to an academic rival), is released into the hands of his sister, Sheryl (Toni Collette). Sheryl is married to Richard (Greg Kinnear), a motivational speaker in Albuquerque who presses his program for success onto his children—a teenage boy, Dwayne (Paul Dano), and a little girl, Olive (Abigail Breslin)—even though his method doesn’t seem to be helping him to land a book contract.
Sheryl’s patience for her husband’s relentlessly upbeat patter is wearing thin. Dwayne has already opted out: he’s biding his time until he’s old enough to get into flight school; in the meantime he’s taken a vow of silence, to minimize his interaction with his parents.