The Sundance Film Festival is an unusual event. While Robert Redford started it as a small festival devoted to fostering American independent cinema, the huge success of early discoveries like Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Reservoir Dogs helped make Sundance a much bigger attraction. Suddenly, the Harvey Weinsteins of the world realized there was money to be made, and they started descending on Park City, Utah in the dead of winter, hoping to find the next indie blockbuster. If you think about it, “indie blockbuster” should be an oxymoron, but a lot has changed in 15 years, and now studio executives routinely show up at Sundance ready to bid $2, $5, or even $8 million dollars on a small-budget film.

Or maybe $10.5 million. That was where the bidding finally stopped for this year’s fest fave Little Miss Sunshine, as studios practically fell over themselves in an attempt to land the movie that had all of Park City laughing. I try to avoid all that inside scuttlebutt, as it seems irrelevant to a movie’s quality, but I have to admit it’s sometimes hard to ignore the hype that blows out of Park City. Fortunately, this time around the film lives up to the hype.

Little Miss Sunshine is a sharp, hilarious portrait of a family struggling to come to terms with itself. Richard and Sheryl (Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette) are a loving couple doing their best to live the American dream. Richard has come up with a nine-step program for success, and he’s hoping to land a big book contract any day. But success hasn’t quite caught on at home. Richard’s dad (in a gloriously filthy performance from Alan Arkin) has come to live with them after being thrown out of his retirement home. And at the beginning of the film, Sheryl goes to pick up her brother Frank (Steve Carell), who’s being released from the hospital after trying to commit suicide.

The immediate family is struggling as well. Inspired by Nietzsche, their teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano) hasn’t spoken a word in nine months, relying instead on a small notebook and a pen he clicks with ferocious intent. Only seven-year-old Olive (the exquisitely precocious Abigail Breslin) seems above all the difficulties, as she practices a dance routine for an upcoming beauty pageant.

It’s a different beauty pageant, however, that sets everything in motion. Olive learns, to her screaming delight, that her second place in a previous contest has entitled her to compete in the next stage of the Little Miss Sunshine competition. All she has to do is travel from Albuquerque to California. The only way to get her there, though, is for the entire family to pile into their old VW bus and take a road trip.

This being a road trip movie, it goes without saying that difficulties ensue. The VW breaks down, one family member is left behind, and other family members start getting a bit too honest with each other. The amazing thing about Little Miss Sunshine is that these familiar tropes are as fresh as a daisy in Michael Arndt’s script.

What’s especially impressive is how true to life this all rings. In an early scene, the family scurries around the kitchen, fussing with each other as they try to get dinner on the table, and it reminded me of my own childhood years. There are also the inevitable family disagreements and irritations, as three generations struggle to coalesce. Soon, we realize that the hustle and bustle is a way of avoiding the awful silences, the moments when people are afraid of what they might say or hear.

But the movie isn’t some disillusioned attack on the suburban family. Instead, it achieves what few comedies can–a balance of tone. The slapsticky moments give way to scenes of genuine pathos, the stinging satire is offset by the warm camaraderie. The characters snap at each other as relatives do and get underneath each other’s skin, but there’s also a deep undercurrent of affection.

None of this would be possible without the fantastic cast. Every performance hits the right note. Dano and Breslin are wonderful as the children, with Dano’s Dwayne the stoic teenager and Breslin the enthusiastic sister. Carell brings the deadpan delivery he honed on “The Daily Show” and uses it to give life to the post-suicidal Frank. And can I just say how great it is to see Alan Arkin in a meaty, funny role? Kinnear often gets stuck playing the repressed everyman, but he has such great chemistry with Collette and the other family members. We believe this guy is trying to bring the family together, even though his methods sometimes have the opposite effect. So when a cop approaches the vehicle and Greg Kinnear blurts out “Everyone pretend to be normal,” it’s a hilarious line because the family is trying so hard to be normal when that’s an impossible task. What family is normal, and who would want to be a part of that family?

The movie isn’t perfect (few are). At times, the gags veer a little too close to National Lampoon’s Vacation (there’s even a dead body in the bus at one point), and the portrait of child beauty pageants is horrifying. But Little Miss Sunshine builds up so much good will that I easily overlooked those mis-steps. And when the VW bus finally drove off into the metaphorical sunset, I let out a little sigh. I hadn’t enjoyed a comedy that much in a long time.