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.