Družina Hoover je vse prej kot vzorna ameriška družina, ki živi v Novi Mehiki. Mama Sheryl je predvsem izčrpana, saj ji preglavice delata tako njuna otroka kot brat Frank, ki je pred kratkim skušal storiti samomor; oče Richard zaman poskuša uspeti kot motivacijski govornik; dedek Edwin pa je vojni veteran, ki so ga zaradi uživanja in preprodaje heroina pred kratkim vrgli iz doma za ostarele. Ko sedemletna hčerka Olive izve, da so jo sprejeli na lepotno tekmovanje, se Hooverjevi v upanju na Olivijin uspeh s svojim kombijem odpravijo v sončno Kalifornijo.
In Albuquerque, Sheryl Hoover brings her suicidal brother Frank to the breast of her dysfunctional and emotionally bankrupted family. Frank is homosexual, an expert in Proust. He tried to commit suicide when he was rejected by his boyfriend and his great competitor became renowned and recognized as number one in the field of Proust. Sheryl's husband Richard is unsuccessfully trying to sell his self-help and self-improvement technique using nine steps to reach success, but he is actually a complete loser. Her son Dwayne has taken a vow of silence as a follower of Nietzsche and aims to be a jet pilot. Dwayne's grandfather Edwin was sent away from the institution for elders (Sunset Manor) and is addicted in heroin. When her seven-year-old daughter Olive has a chance to dispute the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in Redondo Beach, California, the whole family travels together in their old Volkswagen Type 2 (Kombi) in a funny journey of hope of winning the talent contest and to make a dream come true.