Little Miss Sunshine

Released:  2006

Cast:  Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, Alan Arkin

Oscar Wins:  Best Supporting Actor (Alan Arkin), Best Original Screenplay (Michael Arndt)

Oscar Nominations:  Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Abigail Breslin)

SUMMARY:  The Hoover family, which consists of five members, lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Mother and wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) is worn out from working to support the family, as her husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) is trying to get his career as a motivational speaker started.  His concept is a nine-step process about how to win at life, and he frequently preaches the steps in his personal life as well.  He has a book deal in the works with a man named Stan Grossman.  The couple has two children:  Dwayne (Paul Dano), who is Sheryl’s son from a previous marriage, and Olive (Abigail Breslin).  Dwayne admires Nietzsche, wants to go to the Air Force Academy, and has taken a vow of silence until that goal is achieved.  Olive is seven, and wants to be a beauty queen.  Her closest friend is her grandfather Edwin (Alan Arkin), who is also her pageant coach.  Edwin is Richard’s father, and lives with the family after being kicked out of his retirement home for snorting heroin (which he still does).  On the day the film begins, the family is also joined by Sheryl’s brother Frank (Steve Carell).  Frank is a former college professor who studied Proust; he has recently attempted suicide, and cannot be left alone.  That night at dinner, the family learns that Olive has qualified for the “Little Miss Sunshine” pageant, being held in Redondo Beach, California in two days.  Due to a series of variables, including available money and Frank’s condition, the entire family decides to drive to California in their VW bus.  They are plagued by a number of setbacks, both personal and mechanical.  Not long into the trip, the clutch goes out on the van; without a way to replace it in time to get them to California, the family decides to drive it as is.  This means that they must park it on a hill, or else push it to get started.  Later, the horn goes bad, beeping sickly and intermittently.

Trouble also ensues inside the van.  Richard learns that his book contract has fallen through, eliminating income he and Sheryl had been counting on.  At a gas station stop, Frank runs into the man whose romantic rejection caused his suicide attempt.  After a long day of driving, the family stops at a motel; that night, Edwin overdoses on heroin and dies.  He is taken to a hospital, but the process of getting the body home to Albuquerque means that the family will not make it to the pageant.  Determined to follow things through, Richard decides to smuggle his father’s body out of the hospital and take it with them.  They manage to do this, but are nearly caught when the malfunctioning horn causes a trooper to pull them over.  After this the road trip continues, and Olive begins to test Dwayne with some eye charts.  They discover that Dwayne is color blind, and as Frank explains, he will not be able to fly jets for the Air Force.  Dwayne nearly explodes, throwing himself from the car and screaming obscenities (breaking the vow of silence).  It is ultimately Olive who comforts him and persuades him to rejoin the family.  The family finally arrives at the pageant, barely in time.  As Sheryl helps Olive get ready, the men notice that all the other contestants are very thin, wearing heavy makeup, and obviously hyper-practiced.  In contrast, Olive is heavier, wears no makeup, and was coached by her grandfather (whose body Richard is currently dealing with, making arrangements for it to be taken care of).  Olive is the last to perform her talent, and just before she goes on Richard and Dwayne both beg Sheryl to pull her from the pageant, believing that she will be embarrassed.  Instead, Sheryl insists that Olive go on, as this was what she wanted to do.  Onstage, Olive begins her dance to “Super Freak”, which consists mainly of burlesque moves.  The pageant coordinator is horrified, and tries to have the host end the routine.  This enrages Richard, who leaps onto the stage and removes the host.  He then joins his daughter on stage and begins dancing with her.  Frank quickly joins in, then Dwayne, and finally Sheryl, until the entire family is dancing and laughing together onstage.  After the pageant ends, the family is released on the condition that they never enter Olive in another California beauty pageant, which they agree to.  They then push the bus to start it, crash through a toll barrier with the horn going wild, and head home.

MY TAKE:  Fun fact:  this was the first R-rated movie I watched after turning 17.  At the time, I was disappointed, because I didn’t think it was funny at all.  My opinion has changed somewhat with a second viewing, which I think is mainly due to the fact that I am significantly older.  It’s still not the greatest movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s enjoyable.  I think child beauty pageants are kind of a polarizing topic:  while some people like them, there are a lot of people who feel like they’re exploitation.  I’m in the latter of these categories, and it seems like the writer of this movie was as well.  We all know right from the start that Olive is not beauty-queen material:  she’s chubby (Breslin was wearing a padded suit, which you can tell at certain times), has big, unfashionable glasses, and although she professes to be a dancer, she doesn’t look particularly adept.  She’s also coached by her grandfather, who is something of a dirty old man.  I think everybody knew that the actual pageant wouldn’t be real pretty.  The pageant is the climax, but it takes up a relatively small amount of the movie:  most of it revolves around the road trip, which does have some funny moments.  I particularly liked Frank, played by a unusually restrained Steve Carell.  Edwin is also pretty funny, though I didn’t find the body-stealing thing amusing.  It bothers me on a moral level, as well as a practical one:  if you had a dead body in the back of your car for the better part of a day, wouldn’t it start to stink?  In addition, if my father/grandfather had died, I doubt I would have been thinking about a pageant.  I did, however, love the final scene, in which everybody gets up and dances with Olive.  They have repeatedly told her that she is beautiful on both the inside and outside, and they prove it by supporting her, even though she’s obviously losing.  They also show that despite the issues that each of them is dealing with, they are a family, and they stick together.

RATING:  Surprisingly charming.


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