Review: Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Little Miss Sunshine is a feel good road trip movie with the depth of a family drama. As close as the droll idiosyncrasies of adulthood come to bringing the mood crashing down, there is light in the shape of Olive, the star of the show.
The first 20 minutes of the film is pure exposition: we're introduced to the family in the domestic setting as they work, eat dinner, bicker and broach the ethics of explaining suicide to a seven year old. The nature of the ensemble cast means that there is no real lead character so each family member's arc becomes something that we care about as viewers. Dad Richard (Greg Kinnear) is an aspiring motivational speaker who is unhealthily obsessed with winning and his 9-step programme; Son Dwayne (Paul Dano) is an angsty selective mute who has his sights set on being in the airforce; Grandpa (Alan Arkin) is a crass old man whose regard for social etiquette was abandoned a long time ago; Brother Frank (Steve Carell) is a scholar dealing with the weight of life after attempting suicide; and Mum Sheryl (Toni Collette) is attempting to hold them all together with the strength of a Pritt Stick.
Considering how dysfunctional the family is, Olive (Abigail Breslin) is a pretty normal child. To each person she is a daughter, granddaughter, sister and niece and it's clear that they all understand how precious time is with her as she goes through the first stage of her childhood. Their family home is shrouded in a murky brownness and there is a visible lack of room (especially since Frank moved in, sharing a room with his nephew, much to Dwayne's disgust), but Olive's glowing naivety and natural sweetness brings out the best in them and the space they're in. She brings a lightness to the frame each time she's on screen, and this is not only reflected in the responses of the characters around her, but with the bold colours and high key lighting that surrounds her.
Olive doesn't live in the adult world yet. Her life is full of assorted outfits consisting of sweat bands, mismatched bold colours and rainbows. Red cowboy boots? Go for it. Pink leopard print shorts? There is literally no reason not to wear those. Oversized clear-rimmed glasses? Precious. Her personalised vision of femininity has been shaped by the pageantry that she so adores. The crowned queens she idolises have given her something to aspire to - to be considered special - and instead of her parents quashing these dreams, they accept and support their daughter as far as they can. The prospect of being crowned Little Miss Sunshine brings purpose, happiness and hope to her life, so like her family, the audience want this for her too.
A phone call confirming that Olive has qualified for a place at the Little Miss Sunshine competition is the catalyst for the family's cross-country summer road trip. They bundle into their VW minivan - the yellow icon central to the film and its marketing - and off they go to Redondo Beach in California to make it to the competition.
The rusty old Volkswagen that needs a push start each time they stop is not merely a means of transport, but a vehicle for the reunion of a family who were emotionally distant. The symbolism of the van and its parallels with the family don't need to be spelt out: it's bent out of shape, doors are falling off, needs a hand to get going but it keeps them together and carries them to where they need to go. The journey they make in the big yellow tin culminates in the family bonding over their precious youngest member as she comes face to face with the ugly side of beauty pageants.
Whether such competitions can ever be truly empowering for women (and girls) is another debate, but the way that all other Little Miss Sunshine judges and entrants are portrayed suggests that the supposed talent and intelligence that make up the judging criteria is always secondary to the physical attributes of the contestants. Each other little girl looks distinctly different to Olive: outfits adorned with diamontes, bouffant hair, and they sneer instead of smile while getting their spray tans. They have nailed the physicality of their older counterparts competing in the contests that will eventually lead to Miss America or Miss World and they are upholding the beauty standards set by the historical bar, but they still don't exude the level of inner confidence on display by Olive. She should be considered the original purveyor of 'You do you'.
Olive chooses to perform her talent portion of the competition to 'Superfreak', attentively recalling the dance her and her Grandpa had been preparing in the weeks leading up to this date. It's a rarity in cinema that your heart can rise and feel so full after feeling such a doubtfulness but something happens during this scene that elevates the soul.
There really isn't anywhere to hide in a VW van so after witnessing all the flaws of the family in such close quarters, this climatic point in the film is a make or break moment, but Little Miss Sunshine provides a reason for unity, freedom of expression, group rebellion and mental synchronicity. Just like they eventually get into the necessary rhythm to push start the van, they finally see eye to eye at this point, and amidst the chaos are a group of people having fun and accepting one another. It's both hilarious and gleefully sweet to watch.
The directors of Little Miss Sunshine, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, are a married couple and it feels like they brought along the authenticity of married life with them for this film, which was, impressively, their debut. At its Sundance Festival premiere, audiences responded with standing ovations and studios fought over the distribution rights. Clearly, it touches a raw nerve with people - likely because of the balance it strikes between tragedy and comedy. The delicate transition between the darkness and light in Michael Arndt's script is consistently echoed in the score and soundtrack by DeVotchKa and Surfjan Stevens, moving from melancholy with sorrowful violin to elation and feelings of triumph in trumpet solos (listen to 'The Winner Is' by the former or 'Chicago' by the latter to hear for yourself).
The Hoover family find perfection in their imperfections. They provide us with a reinstated sense of wonder and the assurance that if they can make it across Albuquerque* together in an old, battered, honking yellow van, any life can be just as fulfilling and just as full of beauty. All of this makes for a wholesome viewing experience and a film that you will want to hold onto for safekeeping. In the meantime, go and eat some ice cream...
Verdict: Bursting with endearment, but not scared of obscenity. A truly wonderful film deserving of its Oscars and accolades.
Big screen appeal? 🎬🎬🎬
Accolade eligibility? 💡💡💡💡💡
*For the Breaking Bad fans - not only do Little Miss Sunshine and Breaking Bad share the setting of Albuquerque, New Mexico but Bryan Cranston and Dean Norris both appear in the film!
Watch the trailer for Little Miss Sunshine here: