And it is the dreams that concern these characters and how each one of them pursues them, over the course of the film, causes them to get a new perspective on them and what those dreams' true worth to the individual is. It is their personal ironies that often sabotage them, and if this seems like it is a bleak topic for a film, then it is a good thing that the Michael Arndt's script emphasizes likeable characters and has an infectious sense of humanism.
The cast, led by 10 year old Abigail Breslin (whom, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Farris point out in the commentary, was a more experienced actress than they were directors), is outstanding. Arkin, of course, took home the Academy Award, but Greg Kinnear earns special mention for taking his character into some very uncomfortable territory before his redemption. Toni Colletti, Paul Dano, Steve Carell and the Volkswagon bus all infuse their respective characters with a committed naturalism that one never questions that this is a family. They are funny and often rather sad, but they are always human.
It is interesting that the ayton and Farris worked so hard on the very end of the picture. Their struggle paid off, and the coda is a fitting capper to the film. While the pageant scene just before it didn't really work for me, it is ultimately a detail that is less important than the emotional arcs in the story which are very satisfying. Yes, it is a road movie, and as such it hits many familiar points, but it is done with a low key humor and sense of bittersweet reality that it makes for rather refreshing viewing.