Little Miss Sunshine is a low budget film about a dysfunctional family taking a road trip in a yellow VW van through the least glamorous parts of the USA. It’s the opposite of a Hollywood blockbuster, yet it grossed over 100 million dollars at the box office and won two Oscars. What’s so great about it? Let me explain…
LMS has a cast of characters who are all flawed and relatable. At the centre is Sheryl, a stressed-out mum trying to keep the peace and look after everyone around her (emotional labour). Her son Dwayne is a frustrated teenager who has taken a vow of silence to avoid interacting with his family (because Nietzsche). Uncle Frank is an academic suffering from unrequited love and depression. His worldview is the exact opposite of Sheryl’s husband Richard, a wannabe motivational speaker who believes that ‘Sarcasm is losers trying to bring winners down to their level’. Which only makes Frank more sarcastic.
The two best characters are the youngest and oldest: 7 year old Olive and her Grandpa Edwin. Olive’s dream is to win an American beauty pageant. She watches endless videos of the contestants fake smiling, singing and saying they want world peace. Grandpa Edwin colludes with her and together they create a dance routine inspired by his experience with exotic dancers. That’s when he isn’t snorting heroin in the family bathroom. His justification: ‘I’m old. When you’re old you’d be crazy not to do it’.
When Olive gets the chance to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, the whole family must travel across the country to get her there. The road trip offers plenty of opportunity for comedy. But it also delivers several poignant moments about disarmingly serious themes. Rejection, disappointment, suicide and bereavement all get woven into the narrative. The characters find ways to cope and work together as a family, realising the value of what they each have. The best moments capture the hilarious awfulness of family life.
LMS has an excellent cast including Toni Collette, Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin, and a very young Abigail Breslin. My favourite is Steve Carell as Frank in what I reckon is one of his best performances. Frank’s demeanour goes through a perfect evolution from despair to acceptance, darkness to light, desperation to freedom.
The beauty pageant is a perfect setting for the film’s finale. The heavy make-up insincerity and dubious ethics of the competition are in sharp contrast to the bare-faced authenticity of the family. For a brief moment the story could go down a traditional happy ending route. But it wouldn’t do that to us. It’s not that kind of movie.
The idea of dividing people into winners and losers is thoroughly rejected at the riotous conclusion.
Because at heart the ethos is, in Dwayne’s words:
Fuck beauty contests.
This is a film about real life in all its comedy and tragedy.