My Favorite Movies – Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

17 Apr

By Tanner Smith

What makes a winner and what makes a loser? Who is anyone to decide that anyway?

Co-directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, who would go on to make Ruby Sparks (a film in my top-20), “Little Miss Sunshine” is about characters in a win-or-lose situation. What they learn along the way is that the ultimate resolution doesn’t matter as much as the hard work it took to get there.

We have Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear), a type-A personality who strives to be a motivational speaker and sell a book about his own “9 steps to winning.” He’s married to Sheryl (Toni Collette), an overworked mother to teenaged Dwayne (Paul Dano) and 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin). Dwayne reads Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence to prepare himself for the flight academy. And it’s Olive’s obsession with beauty contests that sets the story forward, as she earns a spot in a girls’ beauty pageant called Little Miss Sunshine in Redondo Beach, California. So, the family, which also includes suicidal Proust scholar Frank (Sheryl’s brother, played by Steve Carell) and Richard’s profane, heroin-snorting father (Alan Arkin), has to drive from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Redondo Beach in two days in order for Olive to compete. Their VW bus might not survive the trip…

Being a road movie, the symbolism is obvious–the journey is more eye-opening than the destination itself. Richard gets harsh news about his book sales, forcing him to reevaluate his own values. Frank copes with having attempted suicide and wonders what to do next as an unemployed Proust scholar. Dwayne learns something about himself that completely shatters his own world. Many of these well-defined characters have their own little thing to get through, and it’s through Grandpa, who is unorthodox but still more experienced than the others, that they learn that they don’t have to do it alone. With the right support and effort, there is satisfaction in the outcome, win or lose.

An effective piece of symbolism is in the form of the bus, which has a shot clutch. The only way to get it going is for everyone to push it together to start it.

As moving and effective as its overall meaning is, “Little Miss Sunshine” is also hilarious in the ways it pushes these characters along their journey, such as a sequence that recalls “Weekend at Bernie’s” and a show-stopping encounter with a patrol cop. The screenplay by Michael Arndt is great at balancing comedy and drama–if there’s anything more important than a comedy that can make you laugh, it’s one that can make you feel. And with characters as colorful as these, it’s easy to feel something for them.

This film tells us that it’s not about what we achieve but how we behave in attempting to achieve it. And if you disagree with what society declares a winner or loser, well…screw ’em. What do they know anyway?

Now…I HAVE to talk about the final act, in which they get to the Little Miss Sunshine contest and are totally unnerved and disgusted by who/what Olive is sharing the stage with. I worked as a PA for the reality TV show “Toddlers & Tiaras” once, and I can tell you that the horrified reactions of most of the characters during this totally unpleasant experience in the final act of this film are very accurate. Every time I rewatch the film, it’s a truly uncomfortable sequence…but it’s totally worth it to get to the ultimate (and hilarious) payoff, which is basically a great big middle finger to those kinds of beauty contests!

Actually, no–it’s TWQ middle fingers! One isn’t enough.

God bless you, you little indie film that could (and did). And I salute you for making me believe that it’s OK just to be OK.

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