Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Screenwriter: Michael Arndt
Starring: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Greg Kinnear, Abigail Breslin, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, Beth Grant
As wonderful as it is, 15 years on Little Miss Sunshine has a lot to answer for. The “quirky Sundance comedy-drama” seemed to gain a lot of traction after the successful debut of this film in 2006, anything matching gallows humour with whimsy, eccentric characters drifting through life or nowhere in particular, and a relatable but unique balance of tone and heart, was proven popular and therefore financially viable – just look at films like The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Swiss Army Man for evidence of this trend at Sundance continuing to the present. Little Miss Sunshine was a critically acclaimed multi-award winner, including two Oscars (for Michael Arndt’s screenplay and Alan Arkin’s supporting performance), but how does it play a decade-and-a-half on?
LIttle Miss Sunshine follows the Hoover family who embark on a road trip from New Mexico to California in order for young Olive (Abigail Breslin) to achieve her dream of competing in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, along the way confronting their own failures and what makes them a unique and inseparable family unit.
From the film’s first shot of Olive’s big, hopeful eyes reflecting the light of the television screen, we’re 100% with the young girl and hopeful of her achieving her dreams. Incredibly Breslin was only nine when she performed this role, and two years younger when she auditioned, yet she manages to bring with her both the childlike energy required and a maturity beyond her years. Olive is the family keystone and Breslin completely embodies that.
There’s no wonder really that Olive’s life goals are like they are – she’s got a (failing) motivational speaker for a dad, a driven brother, a forceful mum, an encouraging granddad and a sensitive uncle who surround, support and hinder her in equal measure and in various ways.
The Hoover family is, incredibly, made up entirely of actors who are always the best thing in whatever they’re in. Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano, Steve Carell: what an ensemble this is.
This was one of the first times we saw serious Steve Carell, and it’s among his best dramatic work as uncle Frank, an academic who suffered a rapid series of serious personal and professional setbacks and so tried to take his own life, Kinnear’s Richard insensitively pointing out that he failed even at doing that. Richard is the kind of guy who introduces himself to his own brother-in-law like they’re meeting for the first time at a conference (“Hi, Frank, Richard”). Richard plans everything obsessively and is out to win, whatever the cost. Arkin’s granddad Edwin in contrast is a proponent of trying your best and all for taking risks.
Their temperamental and ancient mustard yellow VW minivan that can only get going from a rolling start, gets its asthmatic horn jammed on, and can only go from 3rd to 4th gear, becomes the 6th valued member of this dysfunctional family of losers.
When writing Richard Hoover, Michael Arndt was apparently inspired by interviews with Arnold Schwarzenegger psyching himself up before his bodybuilding contests. The clash in the Hoover family outlook towards competition and achievement, represented by Richard and Edwin, is “Winners don’t give up” vs “A real loser is someone who’s so afraid of not winning they don’t try”. The real secret is probably to be found somewhere in between these two extremes, but as long as Olive feels supported, and her confidence and self-belief is boosted, what does it really matter how her family help her achieve what she achieves?
Sooner rather than later each Hoover finds themselves at their lowest point: Frank’s failed suicide attempt is trumped by being caught by the man of his dreams buying straight porn at a petrol station; Richard’s much ballyhooed book deal falls through spectacularly within a minute of this and he has to finally face being the loser he has spent his life talking himself around admitting; Olive has her confidence knocked multiple times over her journey, often by her own insensitive, over-competitive dad; older brother Dwayne’s dedication to his vow of silence until he can join the air force hits an unavoidable snag; and at least one member of the clan doesn’t get to complete their journey at all.
Just when all seems lost, dreams have been shattered and hearts broken, everyone bands together as a family to finish what they started and give Olive her shot. As Paul Dano’s Dwayne so memorably puts it before their last-ditch effort: “F*** beauty contests… life is one beauty contest after another”.
It’s hard to believe the finale caused some mutterings of controversy at the time. It’s the film’s most masterful few minutes; clever, hilarious and revolutionary. Olive’s mock striptease dance to Rick James’ “Super Freak” is far less unseemly than what so many American girls are put through in competitions like this, it’s sticking it to all the damaging and regressive ideas about what young girls should be and how they should be seen by the world. The sequence still works because of the indignant reactions of the competition’s uptight judges, who moments earlier were perfectly happy assessing a line-up of ten year-olds in swimwear. The entire Hoover family join Olive on stage and dad-dance alongside her, exposing the hypocrisies of these competitions and standing by their youngest family member in the process.
Little Miss Sunshine hasn’t aged a day. No matter what your family makeup is, you will recognise these archetypes and be moved by the warmness of the relationship dynamics and the truth of this story. Let’s not beat about the bush, the concept of junior beauty pageants, and especially the competitive parents who facilitate it, is weird and really rather creepy, but Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ film isn’t about that, not really. Little Miss Sunshine is a dark comic road movie all about family and such trivial themes as life, death, the universe and everything. One more time for those at the back… “F*** beauty contests!”.