A dramedy with a recognizable-name ensemble, complete with a budding star, all acting quirky.

Little Miss Sunshine feels like the sort of Sundance movie to pull a distribution deal larger than its budget because structurally it has as much independent spirit as News Corp (the parent to Fox Searchlight, who paid $10.5 million for the $8-million movie).

Its setup might as well be cribbed from RV — the dysfunctional Hoover family hits the road with a dad side-tripping for work-related purposes. And, yes, there are a handful of eye-rolling plot conveniences. (Don’t they regularly test for one character’s revealed affliction in grade school?)

The difference, big enough to drive a camper through, is that Little Miss Sunshine is a road-trip tale with a much stronger point to make than B from A, one for which the themes are the destination and not just a third-act rest stop. It’s the genre’s greatest blend of slapstick, sincerity and satire since Albert Brooks’ Lost in America. How mainstream can it be when one character’s life philosophy is “Do what you love and f— the rest”?

Tragicomedy here isn’t born from yuppie guilt, but from the battered-down spirit of a family in a win-win-win culture that allows them neither to take the top prize nor avoid constant reminders of what they can’t have. Sure, it’s funny to watch the Hoovers’ VW van become the most unfit-for-road-travel vehicle since Planes, Trains and Automobiles. It’s the melancholy and merry feeling, along with uniformly exceptional performances, that make this an openhearted, richly human story.

Richard (Greg Kinnear) can’t hawk his nine-step path to betterment in Albuquerque, let alone nationwide. In a second marriage, his put upon wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) pulls in the only steady paycheck. Her Nietzsche-obsessed teenaged son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), revels in hearing them fight and has thus far made good on a vow of silence enacted until he can join the Air Force. Sheryl’s brother Frank (Steve Carell) is a cuckolded homosexual scholar living in their home on suicide watch. Richard’s war-veteran dad (Alan Arkin) is a heroin addict who dotes on his granddaughter.

That’s Olive (Abigail Breslin), a bespectacled, chubby child with a fashion sense to rival Punky Brewster whose dream it is to one day compete in the beauty pageants she watches on TV. With Grandpa’s help, she’s come close on the child circuit, placing as a runner-up in a pageant visited on a California vacation. When the initial winner bows out (in a warm-up to screenwriter Michael Arndt’s later assault on the institution), Olive’s giddy reaction at fulfilling princess duty is such that no one — as much as they’d like to — can say no to a last-minute drive to California.

It’s a swift, layered setup that moves the film to several scenarios of hellish, absurd hit-the-road humor — a literal running gag never gets old, the tin of the van’s horn won’t quit when it gets stuck and Kinnear’s reaction to an unexpected turn during a potentially disastrous traffic stop is perfect.

Flipping one road-trip movie’s gag on its emotional ear steels Little Miss Sunshine to using its idiosyncrasies to illuminate the story in the right ways. Similar to last year’s winning Junebug, the movie never condescends to its characters for an easy laugh, saving that instead for ready-to-pop satirical targets — there the high-end art world, here the child-pageant circuit.

Wisely conceived as the last thing you’ll want sweet Olive to win, it’s the grossest grotesquerie since Hostel, anchored by Matt Winston as an emcee bronzed to the point of brain death.

Directors jumping from music videos to film rarely arrive with as little visual flash and as much measured thematic control as Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. They wisely know that to detract from a cast this committed would be criminal.

Kinnear morphs from recycling his usual jerk mode into a complex patriarchal performance. Collette’s reactive work sails on an array of facial expressions ranging from pleasant to perturbed. Dano punctuates with pen and pad for his speech-free simmers. Breslin’s child charms are natural, not precocious. Arkin’s hilariously profane zingers give way to a most unlikely moral center.

Best of all, Carell is introduced as a gaunt, skeletal shell whose misery is deeply felt in every shuffle and distant gaze. Only gradually does Frank become a character with whom we can share laughs along with fluttering heartbreak. Carell makes a case for himself as the Frat Pack’s strongest actor while still nuttily over-pronouncing “Nietzsche” and “a la mode and agreeing to purchase porn for Grandpa. (His recital of his order as though it were for Cold Stone mix-ins is uproarious.)

At first glance, Little Miss Sunshine‘s ending might seem pat. Then again, so does the whole movie. The Hoovers might stick to the pavement, but their trek kicks up the gravel on paths rarely traveled by the road-trip movie in one of the year’s best comedies.