Comedy and tragedy don't pas de deux much better than in Little Miss Sunshine, a remarkable little marvel that's both the writer's first produced script and the husband-wife directing team's first feature. Attempted suicide, a lovable character's death, a man and a boy's failed dreams, finances so tight that family members at a roadside diner are each budgeted at four dollars or less-it's all heartbreaking and not played for laughs. Yet somehow, there's humor. Somehow, the messy recognizability of life makes you laugh. Not belly-laugh ha-ha so much, though there's some of that here. More like laughter at the cosmic joke of existence-the one where the punch line goes, "Eh, it's better than the alternative..."

Seven-year-old Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin, younger sibling of child actor Spencer) is a slightly chubby, bespectacled Albuquerque girl who studies Miss America pageants in freeze-frame, innocently deconstructing the contestants' gestures and expressions. She's serious, and even took a first-runner-up position in a regional "Little Miss Sunshine" pageant, but she doesn't have a fanatic stage mom with helmet hairspray-she likes it because it's fun and lets her bond with her coach, Grandpa Edwin (the as-ever subtly great Alan Arkin). It's not clear whether Grandpa was a hippie in his youth-the vintage Volkswagen minibus that figures prominently in the plot might have been his-but, generalizing, he does take the occasional snort of heroin and has a cranky disrespect for authority.

And also for his son Richard (Greg Kinnear), who has evidently given up whatever career he may have had to pursue the dream of being a motivational speaker; he has a nine-point plan called "Refuse to Lose" and divides the world into winners and losers. That his belief in this dichotomy is utterly sincere and not obnoxious owes much to Kinnear's uncanny empathy and understanding. Kinnear's own career hasn't been bad, but it's been one of many for which a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination hasn't resulted in an A-list life. His Richard-determined but not delusional-isn't a slumming star turn, but a performance earned, keeping Richard's desperate acts from ever for a moment feeling contrived.

Like modern-day Joads, the family sets out on a 900-mile weekend trip to Redondo Beach, California, in the aforesaid VW bus. Circumstances require the whole family to go, including mom Sheryl (Toni Collette), teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano), and Sheryl's brother Frank (Steve Carell), a Proust scholar whose wrists have just had a close shave. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris-who created the MTV series "The Cutting Edge" in 1983 and have shot videos and related shorts for everyone from Janet Jackson and Smashing Pumpkins to the avant-garde Jim Rose Circus Sideshow-give their cast the kind of breathing room that actors who aren't Meryl Streep or Laurence Olivier don't usually get, and the results aren't showy or actor-ish, but so naturalistic it's almost embarrassing to watch. Comedian Carell in particular demonstrates, as many comedians do, that drama is a cakewalk after comedy.

I can't make up my mind whether the frankly dull cinematography is a result of budget-it takes time and therefore money to light shots really well-or a comment on the characters' washed-out hopes and dreams. Regardless, the bonds of family that come through aren't washed-out at all, and God knows this family earns whatever little thing it gets. Without giving too much away, Olive's pageant routine is a blistering, logical-extension comment on the creepy subtext of little-girl beauty contests, and there are no clear-cut victories. Life can be a glorious mess, but this is just a glorious movie.

-Frank Lovece