“A real loser is someone who’s so afraid of not winning he doesn’t even try.”
Little Miss Sunshine is peppered with such adorable pearls of wisdom, defining family unity every step of the way, while providing the viewer with a parade of “losers”, one more deserving of the title than the other. And yet, these losers are such fighters they are winners. Yes, they’re not winning beauty pageants, or the most coveted genius grant in the US (Macarthur), or learning to fly supersonic jets, but they’re winning at love and understanding one another which is what living is all about. Life is not about winning every step of the way, it’s about trying every step of the way, dysfunctionally.
Little Miss Sunshine is an exercise in acceptance. It has a wide variety of human colour: a tired, overwrought mother (Toni Collette), a highly intelligent yet uncommunicative teenager (Paul Dano), an insecure father who needs to project a false sense of achievement onto everyone – while working himself into a frenzy because he cannot win (Greg Kinnear), a highly eminent yet suicidal philosophy professor (Steve Carrell), a jaded, slightly debauched, foul mouthed WWII veteran grandpa (Alan Arkin) and a delectable 7 year old – Little Miss Sunshine (Abigail Breslin). This is family, clustered together, warts and all. They will support one another through this thing called life, with all its disappointments: emotional heartbreak, financial ruin, career collapse, social rejection and finally death, because they are family and they will have each other’s back.
The catalyst of the film is a journey the family has to embark upon, from Albuquerque to California, so that the youngest of the family, Olive (Abigail Breslin) can participate in a beauty pageant for 6- and 7-year-old girls – Little Miss Sunshine. Make no mistake, this is real life, or as close to real life as reality TV makes it. It is a competitive world out there, there’s no denying it, but to start young girls on this path at such an early age is almost criminal (France is the first country in the world to ban child beauty pageants).
It is important to see the bigger picture: Olive, compared to the other girls in the contest, is the only one who’s not made up to the 9th degree, whose hair hasn’t been on curlers or hairsprayed into a helmet. There’s something unnatural about girls’ beauty pageants and this film pulls no punches in showing the harsh reality of it. As Dwayne (Paul Dano) puts it bluntly:
“You know what? F*ck beauty contests. Life is one f*cking beauty contest after another. You know, school, then college, then work, f*ck that.”
We’re always in competition with one another, why parade our young as if they were overmade up walking talking dolls? While making it to the beauty pageant is the apparent goal of this busload of misfits, it is, as one might expect, the journey there that matters. It makes the whole experience all the more poignant, all the more fun and all the more heartwarming. So much so, that by the time our colourful family makes it to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, winning the contest takes second stage. They have arrived, not in style, barely keeping it together, but they have arrived. The rest doesn’t matter now.
“There’s two kinds of people in this world, winners and losers. Winners don’t give up.” By that token the family has already won, and not just the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. They are fighters and they have won every step of the way, just by resilience alone. Each member of the family has a goal or a demon to fight with.
Olive is the youngest. Her goal is seemingly simple – to take part and win the child beauty pageant she’s been shortlisted for. Yet, her love for her family and her thirst for their acceptance overrides her desire to win. She just wants love, particularly from her success driven father, Richard.
Richard is striving to provide for his family, and hardly succeeding. He has lost sight of what’s important, in an attempt to win a big business and become rich. His ultimate goal is to provide for his family. He’s afraid of being perceived as a loser, forgetting that win or lose, he’s got a family and they will accept him the way he is.
Dwayne is a rebel teenager who steps up to the mark, despite a horrible setback in his ultimate goal of becoming a jet pilot. He shows more maturity than Richard, putting his grief aside, growing from it faster than the speeding bullet. Hey, that’s what teenagers do!
Frank (Steve Carrell), is at the start of the film, perhaps the most immature of the lot. He takes a professional and personal rejection worse than anyone and decides to “check out early.” Yet, thrown in the midst of a rather unusual milieu, he learns the value of human life, he grows past the suffering and discovers that there’s more to life than a Macarthur grant and being hailed a genius by one’s peers. There’s more to winning that winning at an imagined contest set up by society.
Sheryl (Toni Collette) is, or at least tries to be, the glue that keeps the family together. She has no specific goal, other than looking after the family. She is the quintessential mother figure, caring and loving all the way through. She wants everyone to converge, to work together, protect one another and realise that they are family. She is the backbone of the narrative and her resilience is what drives the plot forward. She doesn’t have time for a drama of her own because she worries for everyone else, including her father in law.
If Sheryl is the glue that keeps the family together, Edwin, played with such brilliance by Alan Arkin that he steals every scene he’s in, is the complete opposite. The icing on a rainbow cake of human emotion, he is loud, impatient and will take none of your sh*t. He’s had a lifetime of wisdom and is ready to impart it upon anyone who cares to listen. Unfortunately few do, so he resorts to drugs to pass the time. His friendship with Olive is one for the ages, a blissfully innocent grandpa-granddaughter relationship.
Alan Arkin deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor statuette for his performance in this film, which is worth the price of admission alone. Be prepared for laughter, tears, gasps and a lot of swearing, Little Miss Sunshine is a film for the winners, losers, lovers, misfits and not least – the dancers!