In a cinematic world of superhero action films and suspense filled thrillers that keep audiences on the edge of their seats, it is rare when a film like Little Miss Sunshine manages to rise above the independent film label to become a major box office success. Due in large part to the common themes of family dysfunction, hopes, fears, and the American dream, it combined such independent film staples as quirky characters and deep philosophical themes to create a movie that appealed to both the most sophisticated and entertainment-craved viewers. By examining such themes as life, death, and alienation, Little Miss Sunshine is far more than a simple indie film that scored big, and is more a reflection of the deterioration of commercial American cultural, but the perseverance of the American family in spite of it all.
The movie Little Miss Sunshine made its first big screen appearance in 2006 instantly becoming a box office hit. This oddball comedy, written by Michael Arndt, who also won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and directed by Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, viewers are introduced to the Hoovers—a middle class six member endearing dysfunctional family (“Little Miss Sunshine (2006)”). Richard and Sheryl Hoover lead lives of quiet desperation, with Richard trying unsuccessfully to find financing for his inspirational book, which is really just his overly optimistic views on how to be successful. Unfortunately for Richard, his life is anything but successful, and money and familial anxieties. Sheryl is doing her best to balance her patience with running the household, which includes the ever-energetic Olive, perhaps a reflection of the life view Richard is trying to sell; Dwayne, who has vowed silence and reads Nietzsche for pleasure; Grandpa, who curses and abuses hard drugs; and Frank, her gay, intellectual brother fresh from a suicide attempt. While this family is far different than most, collectively their hopes and fears end up being exactly like everyone else’s. Each family member is alienated, not only from each other, but from the world that seems to continuously reject them. Each wants only love and companionship, and even though they have each other, initially, none of them see that and continue to dwell upon their flaws and the flaws of society. The Hoovers say much about American culture and family systems and how it is important to learn to love yourself and others despite flaws.
Though each adult and semi-adult character is alienated, most of the purity of heart and intensions comes from the youngest and oldest members of the clan. Olivia, with her enthusiasm, single-handedly unites the family in a common goal, while Grandpa tries to live his life and do as he pleases, including drugs. However, the writer Arndt, could be trying to make a statement about the innocence of youth and of old age, as these two characters seem the most authentic, at least to themselves and others. When Olive receives notification about her entrance into the Little Miss Sunshine child beauty pageant, her enthusiasm wins over the rest of the family, and despite financial and relationship problems, they have no choice but to help her live her dream. This leads to what essentially turns the movie into a road trip picture, with the Hoovers traveling westward from Albuquerque to sunny California in order to fulfill Olive’s dream of winning the Little Miss Sunshine pageant.
As the trip begins, the family seems to be at low points in their lives as far as health, marriage, and work, and through their passive aggressive communication, reveal the extent of their despair. Richard cannot help but preach his morals to the family, though his family’s complete disinterest and dismissal echoes the lack of interest from the financers he seeks to give him support. Brother Dwayne expresses his despair by not speaking at all, which is the philosophy Frank adopts in the beginning; he simply has not much to say, considering he recently tried to kill himself. The one thing that Frank continues to reference when identifying himself is that he is the “foremost authority on Proust” (Little Miss Sunshine). This is significant because Proust is known for Remembrance of Things Past, recollecting the days of his childhood from present items. This could be significant to Little Miss Sunshine, as all the characters except for Olive seem to be holding on to memories, whether good or bad, which consequently affects their demeanor. Grandpa spends much of his time encouraging Dwayne to live his life to the fullest, much to the chagrin of Richard. The themes of regret, generational disparity, and the purity of honest run through just above every interaction Grandpa has with his son and his son’s family. His death along the ride marks a transition for the family, from a discordant unit of individuals pulling in the wrong direction to a single unit working together despite their differences. The way they achieve their unity at the end is by going outside their comfort zones and accepting their flaws as individuals and as a unit. Though, much of this could be analyzed as anything from political messages signifying that despite Americans’ differences, they can still come together to achieve something good, perhaps even as a commentary on the war in Iraq; more likely, this film is merely a pro-family film with a message saying if a person cannot rise above the pettiness that often separates people, there is always love where it is least expected on one hand, and required on the other.
The theme of family in the movie is difficult to ignore. Each family is a system, and if one part of the system has a problem it becomes the problem of the whole family system not just the person who is in trouble or has the problem. This takes several spins in the film one time as the Richard hates losers so passionately that the daughter tries her hardest to be a winner, severely affected by his way of thinking; thankfully, Grandpa presents the opposite views, though equally extreme. This is one of many situations presented in the film that viewers can identify with, and the generational education can be seen from Grandpa, Richard’s rejection of it, Dwayne’s rejection of Richard’s philosophy, and Olive’s acceptance of everything. She is a sponge, and though many parents fail to always realize just how big of an impression they have or leave on their children, Richard, Sheryl, and Grandpa do understand, illuminating an important issue. And much like many independent films, it is the fundamental issue of existence that is questioned.
The meaning of life is the main theme throughout the film. Many people think they know the meaning, many presume not to know, and some, like Olive, simply live and love. Dwayne, through his philosophy and plans to distance himself from the family, is just beginning to define his existence on his own. Olive defines her existence through Little Miss Sunshine, which in essence, she becomes. And, even though Richard continuously loses, despite emphasizing the importance of winning, he defines himself as the latter. The writer Arndt breaks down ideas from the notion that dividing winners from losers is an oversimplification that leads to the misery to each characters goal representing a degree of idealism. For each person in the Hoover family a value is at stake, and how they define themselves slowly becomes how they define each other. As families like the Hoovers struggle with big issues, the film shows that it is best to have a supportive system for all involved that will love and try to do what is best for the whole, not the individual parts. And, despite their dysfunctions, the family learns from each other and how to be a family.
Despite debt, an attempted suicide, death, heavy existential issues, and the creepiness of child beauty pageants, the movie is portrayed in a quirky manner. Dayton and Faris, with their music video background, use bright colors and well-placed music to add to the comedy and drama. One of the most colorful items in the film, almost a character itself, is the family’s yellow VW Bus, which in essence could literally be the family’s conduit to unity. It also echoes the “sunshine” of the title. Interesting angles, offbeat dialogue, and wonderful performances make this film much more than a simple independent film or family drama. In the end, the affirmation of the self and community and family comes through far more than the many interesting devices used. Even though the film centers around the trip to Little Miss Sunshine pageant, by the time the family arrives, the invasion of this social event almost seems like an extreme superfluity to the family life the Hoovers finally started to live. If anything else, the film suggests that family is stronger than culture, no matter how important it is often believed to be. After viewing the film, Little Miss Sunshine becomes far more than just a name of a pageant, and becomes a way to live life
Little Miss Sunshine. Dir. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Perfs. Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette,
Abigail Breslin. 20th Century Fox, 2006.
“Little Miss Sunshine (2006)”. Internet Movie Database. 2008. 21 Jul 2008.
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