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Seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) wants to participate in the titular beauty pageant located all the way in California. So her parents, brother, uncle and grandfather all drive her there in the only transportation they have: a broken down bus that's already coming apart. All sorts of misadventures and complications occur along the way, involving Nietzsche, Proust, a stripper routine and a dead body.
Richard (Greg Kinnear), the father, is an aspiring but failing motivational speaker who has plunged all his time and money into his Nine Steps program. His wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) is a homemaker and mother of Olive and Dwayne (Paul Dano). Dwayne is a brooding teenager with an obsession with Nietzsche, who's taken a vow of silence until he achieves his dream of becoming an Air Force pilot. Olive is a precocious little girl with a close relationship to her grandfather. Grandpa (Alan Arkin) is a dirty, debauched old man with a sharp sense of humor and irony. Rounding out the clan is Sheryl's brother, Frank (Steve Carell), a bitterly sarcastic scholar who just tried to commit suicide over losing his job and the man he loves.
It's a touching and sweet film, with a very sinister edge, and became a huge hit with artsy critics and casual film fans alike.
- Actor Allusion: Sheryl tells her daughter "look at me" when the latter gets upset and needs someone to talk to. When else has she done that to her kid?
- Age-Inappropriate Dress: The pageant.
- Atomic F-Bomb : Dwayne. To elaborate, he wants to fly in the Air Force, and has sworn not to talk until he does. He does very well with his vow, until he finds out he's colorblind, and won't be allowed to fly. He starts flailing out in the back of the van, jumps out while it's still moving, runs several yards away, and curls down into a small ball, before letting out a resounding "FUCK!" and bursting into tears.
- The Alleged Car: Their VW bus.
- Badass Grandpa: Take a wild guess.
- Banned From Argo: The pageant holders inform Olive's family that they won't press charges for their behavior during Olive's talent act, on the condition that they never enter her in another Little Miss pageant in the state of California. Ever again. Subverted though, in that the family's reaction to the news more or less amounted to "That's fine by us!"
- Beauty Contest: At the end, also a major souce of Squick.
- Big Brother Instinct: Dwayne tries to prevent Olive from competing in a contest that he views as oversexualized and demeaning to girls.
- Big Word Shout: "FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCCCCCCCCCCCCCCKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK!!!"
- Black Comedy
- Break the Motivational Speaker: Happens to Richard, the father, though not by people he's speaking to, but by the agent who was supposed to get him a book deal.
- Brutal Honesty: Dwayne supplies some of this, knowing Olive won't win the competition.
- Chekhov's Gun: The porn magazines.
- Also the eye tests Olive picks up at the hospital.
- Cluster F-Bomb: Dwayne: "You know what? Fuck beauty contests. Life is one fucking beauty contest after another. School, then college, then work... Fuck that. And fuck the Air Force Academy. If I want to fly, I'll find a way to fly. You do what you love, and fuck the rest."
- And of course, Grandpa:
"Every night it's the fucking chicken! Holy God Almighty! Is it possible just once we could get something to eat for dinner around here that's not the goddamned fucking chicken?"
- Cool Old Guy: Grandpa, to some extent.
- Corruption of a Minor: Having the kids help them smuggle a dead body out of a hospital can't be healthy.
- Averted in that Olive doesn't hear her grandfather's descriptions of his sex life and performs her burlesque routine completely oblivious to its inappropriateness.
- Dawson Casting: Dwayne is 15 and was played by 22 year old Paul Dano. Also ties into Playing Gertrude, as Toni Collette is only 12 years older than Dano and is playing his mother.
- Deadpan Snarker: Frank and Grandpa.
- Dirty Cop: Played for laughs.
- Dirty Old Man: The grandpa.
- Distracted by the Sexy: The cop is distracted from granddad's dead body by pornographic magazines.
- Driven to Suicide: Steve Carell's character is first seen after an unsuccessful suicide attempt.
- Driving Stick
- Dysfunctional Family.
- Emo Teen: Dwayne
- Fat Suit: Actress Abigail wore one in order to qualify for being Hollywood Homely.
- Fille Fatalons Used for comic effect to contrast the serious pageant contestants and stage moms with Olive, who is just a kid having fun with a family doing the pageant on a whim
- Grumpy Old Man: Just guess.
- Hey, It's That Guy!: Bryan Cranston and Dean Norris from Breaking Bad both appear in this movie, along with Steve Carell from The Office.
- Hollywood Homely: Intentionally. Abby had to put on a fake belly to appear chubbier, and wore large chunky glasses with ill-fitting clothes to complete the illusion; she was more or less at the same weight as the other girls.
- Hypocrite: The whole pageant, apparently it's okay to have little girls parade around in bikinis with tons of make up on, but Olive's act is going too far.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Dwayne and Grandpa.
- Lover and Beloved: Frank was in love with a graduate student of his, who had a relationship with someone else — Frank's rival professor.
- Man in White: Frank.
- Mentor Occupational Hazard: Grandpa, who teaches Olive her routine and supports her the whole way, dies halfway to the pageant.
- Mood Whiplash: Pretty much the entire movie.
- The Musical: Yes, really.
- Nietzsche Wannabe: Dwayne, literally.
Frank: Who is that? Nietzsche? So you stopped talking because of Friedrich Nietzsche? ...Far out.
- No One Gets Left Behind: Parodied. Frank says this exact line after they leave Olive at a gas station.
- Of Corpse He's Alive: Smuggling the dead grandfather out of the hospital
- OOC Is Serious Business: Dwayne's big outburst.
- Porn Stash: In the back of the bus, next to the dead body.
- Real Life Writes the Plot: The catalyst for the movie was a comment by Arnold Schwarzenegger that the people he hates most in the world are losers. The screenwriter took offense to this comment, believing that everyone is a loser in some way, but that doesn't make them a bad person. He wrote the screenplay to refute that kind of black-and-white thinking.
- Road Movie
- Rule of Pool: Subverted. Richard gets into a poolside argument at one point, and for a moment it seems inevitable he'll end up pushing his antagonist into the pool, but he doesn't.
- Running Gag: Literally. Whenever Frank is running behind the bus, he asks, "Did I mention I am the pre-eminent Proust scholar in the US?"
- Sassy Black Woman: The grief counselor. She starts out professional enough, but by the end of her argument with Richard she's giving him the head-bob.
- Shout-Out: Possibly. Frank manages to summarize Proust in 30 seconds.
- Sir Swearsalot: Grandpa and Dwayne after he breaks his vow of silence.
- Slow Clap: Attempted after Olive's performance.
- Sorry, Billy, But You Just Don't Have Legs: Dwayne is colorblind and thus won't be able to fly planes in the Air Force.
- Talking with Signs: Dwayne communicates through note writing for most of the movie.
- Teacher-Student Romance: Frank and the graduate student. Then Frank's rival and the graduate student.
- Too Much Information: The grandfather is good at providing this:
Grandpa: Look, I know you are a homo and all, but maybe you can appreciate this. You go to one of those places, there's four women for every guy. Can you imagine what that's like?
- Also the title of a song (grandpa's, of course) in The Musical.
- Trailers Always Spoil: The trailers for the DVD showed clips from the the burlesque routine, which came as a surprise if you saw it in theatres.
- Triage Tyrant: The hospital administrator.
- Troubled but Cute: Dwayne
- The Voiceless: Dwayne at first.
- Welcome to Hell: "Thanks Dwayne. Coming from you that means a lot."