Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Rated R. Our ratings: V-1; L-5; S/N-4 . Running time: 1 hour 41 min.

How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
Psalm 133:1

Little Miss Sunshine

We have seen many a road film about dysfunctional families, but few, if any, with as much heart and filled with moments of grace as this one. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris from a screenplay by Michael Arndt, this is the story of a family that, though a series of events that is both funny and heartbreaking, discovers the unity so prized by the psalmist. The Hoovers are an Albuquerque family about as whacky as they come. Seven year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) is the first one we see, studiously watching the televised moves of a beauty queen as she is crowned. Thus we are shown that it is her dream, or better, illusion, that will be the driving force of the story.

Richard (Greg Kinnear), the father has his illusion—he aspires to be a motivational speaker, pinning his hopes of selling his nine-point success program on an agent now at a motivational conference, hence his frequent calls on his cell phone to check on the progress of a deal. Sheryl (Toni Collette) is the glue that holds the family together. She has just brought home from the hospital her brother Frank (Steve Carell), who had tried to commit suicide. The world’s No. 1 Proust scholar, Frank had slashed his wrists when the male student whom he had loved had dumped him for the World’s No. 2 Proust scholar. To make matters worse, No. 2 is about to displace him academically also because of his highly touted new book on the French writer. Grandpa (Alan Arkin) is a heroin-snorting rebel living with the family because he was kicked out of Sunset Manor for his drug habit. Last of all is Olive’s angry at the world teenage brother Dwayne (Paul Dano), a human black hole because he has taken a vow of silence until he can fulfill his dream of flying a jet fighter by becoming accepted at the Air Force Academy.

Grandpa has been little Olive’s dance coach. She had been awarded the runner up title in the regional Little Miss Sunshine Pageant, but when the winner is disqualified for using diet pills, Olive is notified that she is now eligible to attend the national pageant in California. There are problems involved in packing up and taking the long trip on such short notice, but after deciding that everyone will have to go along, they set forth in their dilapidated VW bus. Along the way they face a series of crises, with the bus, and with each other. Any one of them could have destroyed the family, especially with Dwayne refusing to speak, yet freely writing notes expressing his loathing for his family.

The filmmakers could easily have made fun of the family, but they refuse to do so, merely showing their foibles, but also their strengths which the various crises bring out. Their epic trip is filled with troubles, but also beautiful moments of grace, grace that leads to a family unity able to turn them into winners, though not the kind which Richard touts in his silly motivational spiels. The oft repeated task of getting the old VW going after each stop is an apt symbol of the unity expressed in the psalm. When the clutch breaks and a kind-hearted mechanic tells them that he has no parts but that they do not need a clutch to move from 1st gear to higher ones, they establish their standard operating procedure: everyone pushes the bus, then the driver gets in, and once the bus is moving fast enough to turn over the motor, the others run along aside, with first Olive, and then the others scrambling in. Repeated throughout the trip, this never fails to elicit amused laughter from the sympathetic audience. Little Miss Sunshine is the summer’s “must see” film. There might not be any evocation of God, but signs of divine grace abound.

For Reflection/Discussion

1) What for you was the funniest scene in the film? The saddest? How is the film, despite its exaggerations, very much like life?

2) What do you think of Richard’s values? How has he become a walking, talking motivational cliché? What do you think of his dividing people into “Winners” and “Losers”? How did Jesus reverse this in his teaching and his relationships?

3) How is Olive’s dream built on illusions? And what about her father’s and Dwayne’s dreams/goals?

4) What book is Dwayne reading, and what is the saying on his t-shirt? How are Nietzsche and the denial of Jesus appropriate for his state of mind at the time?

5) How are Frank and Grandpa similar in the way that they react to the world? That is, how are Grandpa’s use of drugs and Frank’s slashing of his wrists both life denying?

6) What do you think of beauty pageants for children? Exploitive—and if so, by whom? What values do they teach the child participants? Could it be that Grandpa’s unusual dance routine that he gave Olive was his way of expressing his disdain? How did you feel when the unmade-up Olive walked through the dressing room where the other girls’ make-up and skimpy costumes were more appropriate for someone twenty years older?

7) What moments of grace do you recall? (The family packing up and setting forth on the trip for Olive; Grandpa’s affirming his son when Richard’s hope of launching his motivational speaking career is dashed; the acceptance of Dwayne despite his hateful words; Dwayne writing the “Hug her” note for Olive; the computer operator’s taking the extra time to enroll Olive in the pageant despite the disapproval of the registrar; Richard, and then the family’s standing up for Olive during her unpopular performance; and—.) Ashe – Joe Morton