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Little Miss Sunshine; LowerCity 

On dysfunctional families and dysfunctional

Little Miss Sunshine (R), directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, is playing at Little Theatres, Henrietta 18, Pittsford Cinemas, and Tinseltown | Lower City (R), directed by Sérgio Machado, opens Friday, August 18, at the Little Theatres.

Just pretend to be normal, OK?

Ah, yes. The road movie.People journeying to or escaping from something, crossing paths with colorful folks, eyeballing breathtaking vistas, and getting on each other's last nerve. But the trekkers inevitably learn stuff (i.e., "There's no place like home") and usually do so with varying amounts of laughter and tears. In Little Miss Sunshine, a fractured family embarks on a darkly funny trip across the Southwest in pursuit of the titular pageant crown. It follows the rules of an asphalt odyssey, at times veering uncomfortably close to clichéd preciousness, but Little Miss Sunshine's perpetual redemption lies in the hands of its brilliant cast.

We first meet the extended Hoover clan at dinner over a bucket of chicken that mom Sheryl (Toni Collette, In Her Shoes) picked up after fetching her suicidal brother Frank (Steve Carell, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) from the hospital. Frank will be bunking with the sullen Dwayne (Paul Dano, L.I.E.), a teenager currently in the midst of a vow of silence. Late to the table are adorable 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin, Signs) and gruff Grandpa (Alan Arkin, last seen in Firewall), as they've been sequestered in the basement rehearsing Olive's dance routine. And then there's dad Richard (Greg Kinnear, who'll play Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil in the upcoming Invincible), an aspiring motivational speaker trying to work his meaningless magic on his family.

When Olive gets the chance to compete for the title of Little Miss Sunshine, the whole family piles in a yellowish VW bus to make the trip from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Redondo Beach, California, setting the stage for arguments, revelations, loss, and inventive vehicular modification. Frank still sports wounds both physical and mental, Dwayne hates everyone, Richard's self-help program interests no one, Grandpa dispenses hilariously profane advice while indulging his tastes for porn and smack, and Olive grows increasingly concerned that beauty queens don't eat ice cream. Naturally, the family rallies together at the pageant, where the plain, potbellied, and plucky Olive goes up against overly lipstickedprosti-tots and the Hoovers manically reorder their priorities, at least until the closing credits.

It's nothing you haven't seen before, right? Bickering kin with endearing quirks learn to love each other as well as themselves. But first-time feature directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (they're better known for their groundbreaking music videos) wisely don't try to make Little Miss Sunshine anything more than it actually is, instead opting to just switch on the camera and point it at their gifted ensemble. The standouts among the uniformly stellar lot are a surprisingly subdued Carell, the silent then very loud Dano, and the guileless Breslin as the most improbable pageant contestant ever. And Arkin ensures that you will never look at a fanny pack the same way again.

Little Miss Sunshine is by no means perfect: the characters' eccentricities border on contrivance, and it's occasionally unclear which values are being rejected and which are being embraced. The fierce bidding war for its distribution rights caused it to become another one of those much-ballyhooed Sundance success stories, and while it's true that we often get burned by festival heat --- Happy, Texas? Thumbsucker? --- the crowd-pleasing Little Miss Sunshine lives up to its hype.

There hasn't been a hell of a lot of sex on theater screens this summer (at least not the theaters I'm stuck at) so in the basest way, Lower City is a refreshing change of pace. Set in dusty, sweaty Salvador de Bahia,Lower City tackles a story as old as time: the love triangle. But with its predictable plot, unsympathetic leads, and less-than-subtle symbolism, the only people who may be truly satisfied by this Brazilian import are the voyeurs.

LowerCity basically explores what happens when Deco (Lazaro Ramos) and Naldinho (Wagner Moura) meet a young stripper/call girl named Karinna (Alice Braga, from the awesome City of God). Deco and Naldinho call each other "brother" and place great stock in their lifelong friendship, but once Karinna shows up willing to trade sex for transportation, they seem to be as eager to stick it to each other as they are her ("it" being different in each case, just to be clear).

The dizzying handheld camera work in Lower City certainly adds to the feverish immediacy, but the heavy-handed race metaphor left me a little drained. Admittedly, however, it's possible I just grew weary of watching Karinna waffle back and forth between the darker-skinned Deco and the paler Naldinho. Come on, even the roosters in the other onscreen cockfight were black and white.

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