The Sunday Review: Little Miss Sunshine

Sunday 15 October (2006)

little miss sunshine

(Spoilers ahoy.)

Back in March I was doing a round of trailer watching when I came across the one for Little Miss Sunshine, and ever since then I’ve been anticipating the movie with great expectations. But, for one reason or another, I never got round to seeing it, which was a really stupid mistake on my part. I’ve seen the first screening of dozens of movies, but this turned out to be the one time in my life where I actually saw the last screening. None of that matters of course, but what does matter is that Little Miss Sunshine is a spectacular movie.

The plot is incredibly straightforward – the Hoover family (dad Richard, mum Sheryl, uncle Frank, Grandpa, teenage son Dwayne and seven-year-old Olive) are all sitting down to dinner when they get a phonecall about a beauty pageant that Olive entered called ‘Little Miss Sunshine’. Due to a technicality, the little girl has made it through to the final, and it sparks a six-hundred mile trip to California. The reason it works so well is partly due to this simplicity, but mostly because of the well observed characters.

Richard is a motivational speaker; obsessed with being a ‘winner’ and always quick to deter behaivour he sees indicative of ‘losers.’ The irony of course is that he is, by his own definition, a loser. He has no job, and whilst giving talks on his ‘Nine Steps’ technique to handfuls of bored ‘losers’ brings him in some money, it’s clear that the family are struggling financially. He has a book deal in the offing, but as you would expect this fails to materialise over the course of the movie. He’s obviously not in quite so much turmoil as his brother-in-law Frank, however, who enters the movie on the tail end of a failed suicide attempt. He fell for one of his students (Frank is the pre-eminent ‘Proust scholar’ in the USA), a male, who then got into a relationship with the second-most pre-eminent Proust scholar in the country. Frank’s relationship with this student led to him losing him job, and thus his Proust title, hence the cry for help.

In line with the dysfunctional family scenario, Richard’s dad lives at home after getting thrown out of the retirement home for snorting heroin, and their teenage son is nine months into a Nietzsche-inspired vow of silence. The females of the household seem to be more down-to-Earth, apart from Olive’s peculiar obsession with beauty contests – from watching them to entering them, despite her oversized glasses and pot belly.

I suppose, really, this is a road movie. In many ways it’s very cliched – the family go on both a physical and spiritual journey throughout the course of the film, as Frank learns to loosen up a little, Dwayne breaks his angsty vow of silence, and Richard manages to move his interests away from his ill-advised career path towards supporting his family. It’s a very funny film, but it’s very clever with it too – the ending, for example, is inspired – as events build to a head, the film culminates with Olive’s performance at the Little Miss Sunshine show. As a viewer you have no idea what to expect, and everyone in the family has turned dead-set against her performing at all, having come to the realisation that having adults judge preteen girls dance across a stage in bikinis is slightly more dysfunctional than they are. However, Olive’s routine (choreographed by Grandpa) is absolutely hilarious – the thinly veiled sexuality of the beauty contest scenario is torn apart as she performs what can only be described as a strip-show (though not taken to its conclusion obviously.) The judges and audience are appalled at having this thrust into their faces, but Olive manages to win the respect of the most important people – her family.

As I said, it all sounds very cliched (it even ends with the family driving off into the sunset) but… so what? It works – it really works. This is a funny, thought-provoking, intelligent movie, and it’s very entertaining indeed. Best movie of 2006? Quite possibly.


3 Responses to “The Sunday Review: Little Miss Sunshine”

  1. Metallus Says:

    Loved this movie, and saw it twice. Glad to see it made it to the UK, it seems like not everyone over here (in the US of A) even had it released at a theatre near them. Anyway, nice review all around.

    But I must nitpick, for this is the Internet: Frank never actually had a relationship with the grad student. His rival did, and Frank’s actions after being jilted got him fired from his position, which then led the rival to win the coveted MacArthur Grant (a real thing) and assumption of whatever top title there is in Proust scholarship. And despite being in the USA, he wouldn’t have been fired just for being gay or something, heh.

  2. stan Says:

    You’re right of course Met, and I didn’t mean to be misleading so thanks for pointing that out. What I was trying to say was that Frank’s infatuation with the student caused their relationship to go beyond the realms of the teacher-student relationship, which was what got him fired. That’s how I interpreted it (as him getting fired for unappropriate conduct or something) but I could easily be wrong. I mean, according to Wikipedia (so, pinch of salt) Richard isn’t actually Dwayne’s father. Maybe that was obvious, but I missed it 😐

    Anyway the scene with Frank and his former student at the gas station was one of my favourite scenes in the movie, and I would have stuck it in the review if I hadn’t been so pressed for time. I love how you see Frank finally loosening up and having some fun, then he goes to buy the porn for Grandpa and his whole world is shaken apart when he runs into the guy. Very touching little scene.

  3. Rickfish Says:

    Yeah, I loved it. It seems like a back comedy but it has many laught out loud moments. Grandpa was hilarious. I’m tempted to point out that the cinematography is pretty dull but it has had me wondering whether that was deliberate as it suited the mood of the film.

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