As the film began rolling, however, Saraf began to have some reservations. The family comedy features Alan Arkin as a grandfather who snorts heroin and yells obscenities. How would Saraf's great-uncle, an 80-year-old concentration camp survivor, react?
"I kept looking over at him when Alan would go into one of his expletive tirades," Saraf said. "He was just laughing!"
Audiences of diverse ages and cultural backgrounds warmed to "Sunshine," much like Saraf's relatives, after its July 26 opening.
The film first gained momentum with a standing ovation at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, which led to a bidding war for distribution rights. Box office success followed, with a domestic gross of more than $59 million as of Jan. 4, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.
The numbers are expected to keep growing, with "Sunshine" still being screened in some theaters, even as it was released on DVD Dec. 19. Not bad for a film with an $8 million budget.
The Fox Searchlight release has also been a critical favorite, garnering film festival awards, Top Ten of 2006 honors from the National Board of Review and American Film Institute, as well as multiple nominations for Gotham, Satellite, Independent Spirit, Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe awards. In light of this, "Sunshine" is poised to be an Oscar contender, as well.
The movie begins with the shabby Arizona home of the misfit, middle-class Hoover family. Richard, played by Greg Kinnear, is the motivational speaker dad who can't get his book published; his wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette), is depleted from years of running and supporting the family; Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), is a gay Proust scholar, who recently attempted suicide after being jilted by his lover; hedonist Grandpa has been kicked out of the nursing home for his heroin vice; son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), is an angry teen who's taken a vow of silence; and then there's Olive (Abigail Breslin), the heart of the film, a pudgy, bespectacled 7-year-old innocent whose dream is to win the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant.
When Olive learns she's won a last-minute spot to compete in the pageant, she has two days to make it to the competition in Redondo Beach. The family piles into their broken-down yellow Volkswagen minibus and heads west.
The minibus that chugs along despite falling apart through the film is a metaphor for the troubled Hoovers. And "Little Miss Sunshine's" promoters have enjoyed drawing a parallel between the family's hard-won personal triumph and the success of this "little indie flick that could." While an Oscar win might seem like a long shot, dismissing "Sunshine" would be a mistake.
The Golden Globes singled out directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris for a best musical or comedy nod, as well as Collette for best actress in a comedy or musical. And tradition has it that the Globes, to be held this year on Jan. 15, are fairly good predictors of Academy Award nominations.
Another Oscar bellwether is the Producers Guild of America, which included "Sunshine" as one of five feature films nominated for the Darryl F. Zanuck producer of the year award. The Producers Guild Awards will be held Jan. 20.
The film's universal appeal seems to tap the same spirit that propelled audiences of every background to see "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," another indie feature that toyed with universal themes of family dysfunction. Saraf credits "Sunshine" screenwriter Michael Arndt for writing family relationships that ring true for all audiences.
"There is an honesty in the dynamic in that family," Saraf said. "The script has a wonderful sense of humor as well as a real emotional underpinning, and I think that's what people are really responding to."
Co-producer David Friendly also sees the appeal of "Sunshine" in this light. The son of legendary CBS News president Fred Friendly, David personally identified with the script's complicated father-son relationships.
"I did have a powerful father figure," he said, describing his dad as a "larger-than-life character."
One scene that felt particularly reminiscent for Friendly occurs toward the end of the film, as the family is nearing the freeway offramp for the pageant. Richard, who is driving, can't figure out the exit, and thus keeps circling, while a cacophony of direction-yelling ensues around him.
Friendly fondly recalled being lost in Portland, Ore., with his father behind the wheel.
"Dad was sort of commander in chief insisting he knew his way around.... Doing loops around the airport," he said.
The ability to channel such real human moments is what audiences of all demographics have embraced in "Sunshine," and both Friendly and Saraf say that is enough, regardless of any awards buzz.
Friendly says that's part of the moral of "Little Miss Sunshine" -- to enjoy the experience, rather than being focused on winning -- and it's also something he absorbed from his Jewish upbringing.
"You learn from all the seders around the table. You get a good sense of what's right and wrong, and the ethics of a good life," he said.
"I think that also fundamental to the theme of the movie, we all want to succeed, but at what price? If you get too focused on the wrong things, it begins to corrupt other things."
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