Little Miss Sunshine is an emotional rollercoaster of a film which is as sweet and comic as it is serious and tragic. The film tells the story of the Hoover family driving from New Mexico to California for seven year old Olive (Abigail Breslin)’s beauty pageant competition, Little Miss Sunshine. The film jolts you from one emotional state to the next like the family’s rusted yellow VW bus changing gears; yet it does so with such grace, humour and empathy that one cannot help but love the ride.
In many ways Little Miss Sunshine is a modern critique of the American Dream. It reveals how a blind belief in individualism, meritocracy and competition has led to a distorted society where people are either winners or losers. The screenplay was written by first-time writer Michael Arndt, who read about a group of high school students saying “If there’s one thing in this world I hate, it’s losers. I despise them.” This struck a chord in Arndt: “I wanted to… attack that idea that in life you’re going up or you’re going down… a child beauty pageant is the epitome of the ultimate stupid meaningless competition people put themselves through.”
It is the father Richard (Greg Kinnear) who epitomises the American “rugged individualism” which is exaggerated to a point of cold arrogance. Richard’s idea of success is based purely on the individual and this comes at the detriment of his relationship with his family. He has no sympathy for Frank (Steve Carell), his brother-in-law who tried to commit suicide (“he gave up on himself… that’s what winners never do”); he berates Olive for apologising (“don’t apologise Olive, it’s a sign of weakness”); and leaves his wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) to work all hours of the day while he chases his dream of a self-help programme.
This dogged pursuit for individual success and judging all actions and people as either winners or losers leaves the family members isolated and trapped. Critic Jim Emerson explained that: “Little Miss Sunshine shows us a world in which… nothing exists that cannot be compartmentalized or turned into a self-improvement mantra about winners and losers.” This compartmentalisation is physically represented in the film by the composition of the shots. The family are constantly boxed in by their surroundings. An early kitchen scene reveals the action through a rectangular breakfast bar between the monolithic wood-paneled cupboards. Much of the film is shot in the claustrophobic van with a low ceiling and horizontal and vertical lines created by the windows and chairs. Even in the hospital where the family are united in grief they sit separately on square chairs and look hemmed in by dark horizontal paneling on the walls. The world they live in is constantly constricted. In one shot Olive looks up through the window as the van speeds down the road, but the blue sky is blocked by the winding and circular highways above her.
Yet this somewhat depressing world is full of comedy. The van is used to great comic effect – it breaks down early on in the journey and after that can only be started when pushed by the whole family. After a few hours the car horn continuously makes a noise, drawing the attention of a policeman. This policeman then searches the car and finds Frank’s gay porn in the trunk of the car. The film sways from a moment of intense seriousness, such as the death of the grandfather (Alan Arkin), to a comic scene where the family steals the body out of the hospital and puts it into the trunk of the car. Little Miss Sunshine’s success lies in its ability to bring together extreme emotions and comic elements with tenderness.
The beauty pageant is the climax of the film, and it is this that finally draws the Hoover family together. The whole family, even Richard, sees how this brutal competition with hyena-like parents will chew up and spit out Olive and her dreams. Teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano), Richard and Frank all agree that Olive shouldn’t take part: “I don’t want these people judging Olive… everyone is going to laugh at her… she’s not a beauty queen, she’s just not.” Sheryl stands firm, responding to Dwayne, “you’ve got to let Olive be Olive.”
The following scene is one of my favourite moments in film. Sweet, slightly overweight Olive gets up on stage and to the song ‘Super Freak’ innocently dances the burlesque performance her grandpa had choreographed. With gusto she rips off her stripper trousers and tosses her top hat into the audience. The crowd are scandalised at what they believe to be a sexual performance. This is of course ironic, as compared to the spray tans, heavy makeup and skimpy bikinis of the other contestants. To save Olive being taken off stage the whole family end up joining in. Hips thrusting, arms waving, heads shaking, they are certainly not winning the competition, they are doing something far more important: they are having fun.
Little Miss Sunshine succeeds by making us all feel a little less weird and a little less alone. Life may be “one fucking beauty contest after the other” (Dwayne) but as Grandpa says, “a real loser is somebody that’s so afraid of not winning they don’t even try.” What started as an alienated group of individuals has turned into a close-knit family, working together and having fun together to make Olive’s dream come true. Even if that didn’t involve winning. The film ends with the yellow VW smashing through the barriers of a parking lot to the shock of the competition’s organisers, summing up perfectly Dwayne’s earlier philosophical words: “do what you love and fuck all the rest.”