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Little Miss Sunshine

Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Starring: Abigail Breslin, Greg Kinnear...
Length: 101 minutes
Rated: R
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox

Life as a madcap journey! This film can be looked at metaphorically or literally – and both will evoke thoughts and feelings that are worth exploring.

It is hard to imagine a better framework for examining oneself and learning about oneself and life than to take a long family trip in a broken down vehicle, for a destination that is improbable. Try any family trip or visit, really, and it will bring plenty of material for one’s own learning.

Such is the premise of Little Miss Sunshine. It is funny, sad, pathetic, unbelievable yet so familiar, endearing, and sometimes, very close to the bone. Olive, a 7-year old beauty-pageant wannabe, ends up being eligible for a beauty pageant when one girl backs out.  Her parents, brother, grandpa, and uncle take off on a road trip to California to get her there on time. Along the way, there are multiple mishaps – the clutch breaks on the van, Olive worries that she is too fat, Grandpa gets sick, Richard confronts a would-be business associate, and Sheryl, the mother, just tries to hold it all together for everyone. Each of these events requires creativity and nimbleness on the part of various family members. These and other unpredictable events and their resolution remind us that moving through life requires flexibility, openness, a sense of humor, and a future-oriented focus.

Olive’s dad Richard is a dreamer and motivational speaker with a 9-step plan that he is trying to transform into the big ‘win’ of his life – and he just can’t land the big deal. And he declares that he can’t stand losers (while feeling every bit a loser).  Sheryl, his wife, is the sole breadwinner, and has taken in her gay brother, Frank, after his attempt at suicide over losing his lover to the second-best Proust scholar in the world (Frank is #1). To Richard, Frank is a loser. Dwayne, Sheryl’s son, is a silent player in this family drama – he refuses to speak, and Gramps, Richard’s dad, is on board because he was kicked out of a retirement home for offensive behavior (warning – he swears a lot and has objectionable views of women). Gramps snorts heroin, swears constantly, and expects that life should be pleasure forever. This motley crew comes together around Olive, and, Gramps is her ‘coach’ for her routine for the pageant. Olive is not traditional beauty pageant material – she’s too natural, too chubby, and too child-like, and she is not a ‘fit’ with the rest of what goes on at children’s beauty pageants.

All of these ‘losers’ combine to make a poignant and often funny film about family, imperfection, coming together, supporting each other, and finding unity and solidarity when it’s needed.  The riotous ending of the film (I howled in laughter) allows every family member to make a declaration which, in their defiance of the pageant rules, opens a new way of being together. The filmmakers have done a great job of having us get to know each of these family members so that we appreciate their quirkiness without having to be knocked over by too much predictability or obvious attempts to make us enjoy and like them.

What makes a winner? What makes a loser?  What does a family do or not do to have people believe it is dysfunctional? What does success mean when it comes to being a family? These are the questions that I was left with after watching this film. Those who reflect on these questions may find themselves opening up to more tolerance of differences and quirkiness in the people closest to them, and may declare that Richard and his family have the most essential ingredient – they show heart, compassion, and love to each other at just the right moments, and in so doing, they each get to be better versions of themselves. Treat yourself to this little gem sometime soon!

p.s. I chose not to write about the child beauty pageant industry here. However, the movie makes its own statement about them, and I agree with the filmmakers.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Richard, the father, can have a tendency to be ‘right’ and ‘righteous,’ which has a mostly negative effect on his family and his connection to them. What are the times in your life when you are righteous, and what is the effect on you and others?
  2. Righteousness denotes some passion. How could Richard use his passion in more beneficial ways?
  3. Sheryl, the mother, rarely complains and focuses on what she can do to keep things moving along. Even though one might say she suffers silently, she is present and future-focused, and is in many ways the ‘rock’ of the family. What can we learn from her? Who are the ‘rocks’ in your life?
  4. Dwayne refuses to speak, though he is a deep observer and connects in spite of his vow of silence. What role does Dwayne’s silence play in this movie?
  5. Quiet scenes contribute to the poignancy of the movie. When Dwayne decides to ‘quit’ the family, Olive comforts him without words. Her soft touch is enough. How often do you use stillness and touch to convey your understanding and compassion?

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