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Family Matters 

Screwed-up brood brightens Little Miss Sunshine.

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Toni Collette has played sympathetic mothers before. In The Sixth Sense, she stuck behind her son who saw dead people. In About a Boy, she took care of a little boy and Hugh Grant. In Little Miss Sunshine (opening today), Collette portrays her most empathetic onscreen mom: Sheryl Hoover, the matriarch of one messed-up American family.

"I really tend to gravitate toward roles where there's just more of a whole understanding of a person, no matter what function they play in a family," Collette says.

Little Miss Sunshine, directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, tells the story of the Hoover clan and its trek from Albuquerque to California one weekend in an old VW bus. The family's youngest member — pasty and dumpy seven-year-old Olive — has been chosen, by default, to appear in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest. Along for the ride are Dad, a motivational speaker (played by Greg Kinnear), whose own career is in shambles; a heroin-snorting grandpa (Alan Arkin), who was kicked out of a retirement home for cruising other residents, and Sheryl's gay brother (a wonderfully subtle Steve Carell), recently released from a hospital after a failed suicide attempt. Rounding out the group is Sheryl's Nietzsche-loving teenage son, who has taken a vow of silence until he gets into the Air Force.

Holding them all together is Collette's Sheryl, maybe the most grounded mom on the planet. "Sheryl is the one who has her two feet planted, while everyone else is floating around," says Collette. "She's incredibly selfless and incredibly patient. Yet she's infused with this sense of being bigger than just what she appears to be."

The 33-year-old Australian says she's starting to see a pattern to her characters. Her breakout role was in 1994's Muriel's Wedding, in which she gained 40 pounds to play an Abba fan who dreams of her very special day. She was last seen lurking in Cameron Diaz's shadow in In Her Shoes. "[My characters] are about self-acceptance," says Collette. "They're people who feel disgruntled or dissatisfied. They make changes in their lives, and they learn to appreciate themselves."

Little Miss Sunshine is a rarity in the dysfunctional-family-movie genre: It has a big heart. "It moves between comedy and tragedy," says Collette. "That's what life is really like."
Fri., Aug. 18

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