‘Oh jeez, I’m being pulled over. Everyone, just… pretend to be normal.’
Little Miss Sunshine (2006), a classic road movie directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, and written by Michael Arndt, captures the dynamics of the dysfunctional Hoover family on their way to a beauty pageant in Redondo Beach, California. In the opening scene the bright eyes of a little girl, Olive (Abigail Breslin), gaze directly at the camera, the reflection of a TV screen glimmering on the surface of her glasses. The film cuts to a middle-aged man, Richard (Greg Kinnear), giving a motivational speech—the Nine Steps, which will lead to success in life—and then cuts to a teenager, Dwayne (Paul Dano), lifting weights with a portrait of Nietzsche in the background, and crossing out the 473rd training day (in preparation for the Air Force Academy) on his calendar. One gets an immediate glimpse of the fragile dreams of these people, and we are further introduced to a coke-snorting ex-hippie (Alan Arkin), and Frank (Steve Carell), a Proust scholar who is recovering from a suicide attempt, and is staying at his sister Sheryl’s (Toni Collette) house.
As soon as the news of Olive’s place in Little Miss Sunshine -competition is announced, the whole family sets out on a 700 mile journey from Albaquerque to the West Coast, in an old VW bus. The tensions between the characters build during the very first miles of the trip; not all are willing participants in this excursion, and Grandpa enforces his life philosophy on everyone, punctuated by a constant flood of select swear words. Meanwhile, Richard’s book about the Nine Steps, ironically, fails to capture the attention of the publishers; a crises arises between Sheryl and Richard. Each of the characters go through a confrontation of reality, and a tragedy midway brings them together, as they face the absurdity and unpredictability of life.
Little Miss Sunshine is brilliantly paced; a balance between character, and the interplay of comedic and tragic elements. The talented cast makes all of the characters come alive in this satire of modern American culture, where the beauty pageant symbolizes of the vanity of superficial success, eating away at the core of people.
Dwayne: You know what? Fuck beauty contests. Life is one fucking beauty contest after another. School, then college, then work.
Regarding Richard’s mantra about winners and losers, Arndt drew inspiration from an article he read in a newspaper, about Arnold Schwarzenegger saying to a group of high school students: ‘If there’s one thing in this world I hate, it’s losers. I despise them.’ This juxtaposition can be seen as a link to the slightly clichéd concept of the American dream. Arndt also adds into the story childhood memories of his own; throughout the journey, the VW bus slowly falls apart (starting with the clutch and horn getting stuck, and the door eventually falling off). A notable contribution to the character of the film, in addition to the wonderfully colorful cast, is a distinctive score with contributions from DeVotchKa and Sufjan Stevens. Having worked previously as a director of music videos, Faris realized the impact of the soundtrack, which was decided early on in the making of the film.
You start off with all these people living their separate lives and the climax of the movie is them all jumping up onstage together. So the story is really about this family’s starting separately and ending together.
Michael Arndt, the writer