Every year, critics present one independent film with the “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” seal of crossover approval. The seal, given with the condescending tone normally associated with a Special Olympics medal ceremony, is meant to assure mainstream filmgoers that an indie is neither too urban nor gay to offend, and not too esoteric to confuse.

This year, critics have chosen to champion the inoffensive, yet thoroughly enjoyable road movie, “Little Miss Sunshine.” In it, a likeable family from Arizona, the Hoovers, drive their adorable, eight-year-old daughter Olive to San Diego so that she can compete in a children’s beauty pageant.

The film’s theme focuses on failure – how we accept defeat and how we soldier on in spite of it. But the writer Michael Anrndt handles this potentially morose material with a light, assured hand. The dialogue is breezy and tart, and the characters are keenly observed, if not particularly deep. Along the way, the characters bicker, but without any real malice. Problems are solved with a hug or a sixty-second long soliloquy about believing in yourself. But despite these sitcomish moments, the film never devolves into treacle.

The Hoover family patriarch Richard, played by Greg Kinnear, is a struggling, community college instructor, looking for a publisher for his personal improvement book. Despite the lack of success in his own life, he incessantly pushes his children to win, win, win at all costs. From what dark place does this otherwise typical man get his obsessive drive to win? We never know. It’s not that kind of movie.

Richard’s constant haranguing has strained his relationship with his teenage son Dwayne. However, while he claims to hate his father, the two share a similar drive to succeed; Dwayne has taken a vow of silence in order to focus himself on his goal of becoming an Air Force pilot. Does the film ever examine this interesting contradiction? No. What is it about flying that so inspires this young man? Again, we never know.

Accompanying the family is Uncle Frank, a Proust scholar who recently attempted suicide after losing both his job and his lover. Steve Carell gives Frank an affecting, wounded quality that the actor has never displayed before. One wonders if Carell might one day transcend his herky-jerky comedic style and follow in Bill Murray’s subtle dramatic footsteps.

Acting as a counter-weight to this dreary corp of Type As and walking wounded is Richard’s crass, fun-loving father, Edwin (played with understated panache by Alan Arkin). In one of the film’s most amusing scenes, he provides his teenage grandson with the following sage advice: “Fuck every woman you can, whenever you can… Fuck. Always.” To Edwin, Richard’s obsession with winning and losing is beside the point and potentially toxic to his children. Instead, Edwin believes in squeezing every drop of joy he can from this all too short life, even if that “joy squeezing” involves heroine and strip clubs.

The film’s ending drives this point home in a way that is simultaneously tender, hilarious and jaw-droppingly disturbing. I cannot describe it without ruining the surprise (or perhaps the shock), but it will likely be remembered as the funniest, truest scene of any American film this year.