Movie lovers and friends,
I begin with a Berry Boppin’ smoothie at small table at Worcester’s Nu Cafe. With no one directly next to me but strangers straight ahead enjoying their lunchtime conversations and meals. Looking over my notes on Little Miss Sunshine listening to the variety of drink orders being served to the patrons.
It is only fitting that I begin my first reflection on a movie with my favorite film…Little Miss Sunshine directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, written by Michael Arndt, staring Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, and of course the true gem of the film, a yellow VW Bus.
The film received critical acclaim premiering at Sundance, nominated for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress (Abigail Breslin), and winning two Oscars (Best Original Screenplay Michael Arndt and Best Supporting Actor Alan Arkin).
In my following words I will try to explain why I love this movie so much. However unconventional it is to say Little Miss Sunshine, I cannot help but enjoy this beautiful story every time I watch. I have the script for the movie, a piece of film reel, and I have it on both DVD and Blu-ray (Believe it or not it is available on Blu-ray). This movie also is the sole reason why I want to one day own a VW Bus. I think my enthusiasm for this movie is clear. So let’s get to the thick of things.
The script holds the weight of the entire movie. While heavy on dialogue, the story flows smoothly and delves into the complexities of family, a road trip, but most importantly, the obsession in our society of winning and losing. While Arndt’s story was mainly to comment on the idea of winning and losing, the film strays a bit from this theme as the narrative progresses, but the undertone of winning and the need for people to win is captured in the story lines of many of the characters. It is captured in Richard Hoover’s drive to get his “9 Steps” Program published, in Olive’s drive to win the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, in Frank’s effort to bounce back from a failed attempt at suicide, and Dwayne’s quiet mission of signing up for the air force.
A script so focused on the dialogue relies on the actors to put on a powerful performance. And did they put it on. Carell’s portrayal of a suicidal, gay, scholar, is by far his strongest performance of his career. It was one of his first films while he was still a relatively unknown actor before his success as Michael Scott. Collette gives a very underrated performance as the mother, Sheryl. Alan Arkin, while maybe not Oscar-worthy, gives a great performance of the meat of the humor in the grandfather. You start out hating Kinnear’s Richard Hoover but come to love him by the end of the movie and accept who he is (part of the central theme and meaning of family…I’ll get there in a bit). Paul Dano’s writing on the pad, his character’s vow of silence calls for Dano to portray his emotions through body language. And Abigail Breslin. While her first acting role was in Signs, she gave a truly remarkable performance as Olive Hoover. It was her beautiful blue eyes that begin the film. It was her innocence, her smile, and portrayal of pure joy after she heard the message left by her aunt. It was Breslin that drove this film. She was not only a binding force for the characters to come together, but it was Breslin who was able to capture the hearts of the audience.
Credit is due to directors Dayton and Faris in enabling these beautiful performances. Dayton and Faris had the actors go on a mini road trip of their own in a van and had the actors spend a week together before filming in order to develop a culture and sense of family among the actors. Because the script was heavy in dialogue, Dayton and Faris relied on movement of both the actors and the camera in order to break up the dialogue. A key example is the first scene at the dinner table. As a peaceful dinner goes array after the voicemail, Frank and Dwayne are left static as Richard and Sheryl fight over how Olive is going to get to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. The wide shot of the dinner table allows for Collette and Kinnear to navigate the kitchen and dining room as they clean up and fight over the dilemma. The camera both follows them as they walk and stays still to capture their movement.
One of my favorite scenes is after (*****SPOILER ALERT*****) Grandpa passes away. In a truly hilarious scene, his body is pushed through a hospital window and carried ungraciously by Frank and Dwayne to the Bus. The handheld tracking shot the ensues is perfect. The camera captures the movement as it bobs behind a row of cars. The soundtrack for this scene (and this movie in general) is perfect. (Credit is due to Paul Dano for recommending many of the songs to Dayton and Faris). But again, movement captures the struggles of the characters and provides a visual flow of character development and narrative progression.
Winning and losing is captured in the epitome of the winning/losing culture in our society…a beauty pageant. These venues for fabricated beauty sadly plague our society. We have more than one television show that glorifies this pageant world and this sad and sick mothers who doll-up their daughters to live a life they surely can’t live. These pageants for children to pass up on their childhood and begin a quick descent on the path of insecurity, anorexia, bulimia, and artificial happiness. Dwayne, Frank, and Richard try to save Olive from this descent, but Grandpa has already set strong foundation that will not shake Olive’s resolve to be who she is and wants to be. Her dance performance is a big middle finger to the entire pageant industry and who better to give it than an innocent, normal sized, thick-rimmed glasses, symbol of true happiness and the real definition of beauty that is Olive.
Themes such as death, addiction, and suicide are dealt with a light touch of dark humor, the exploration of family is what truly strikes home. Art often reflects what we want to see in it. Art is as much a reflection of ourselves as it is of the artist and the artist’s intentions. When we identify with a movie or a piece of art it tells us something about ourselves. I love Little Miss Sunshine because it comments on the complexities of family. My family, as all families do, has its fair share of drama. I don’t have much of an “extended” family. In reality, my biological family, that I identify with is only 5 people (including myself). I grasp on to Little Miss Sunshine because it so eloquently explains the idea of family. Family is not just love. Kinnear addresses this point in the making of Little Miss Sunshine. Family is acceptance. We may hate each other at moments, we may fight, we may not speak, but there is the unyielding bond between family members. It is a level of love, but more of a level of acceptance. We accept each other for each other’s faults, flaws, and failings. Often times in family there is something that holds everyone together. In the Hoover family that force is Olive. They are united by their love of her and for her. They are united by her innocence, charm, and passions, whether they want to be or not. Little Miss Sunshine shows the progression from acceptance of each other to a loving acceptance. At the dinner table in the Hoover home, Frank and Dwayne are left alone during the fight. By the end of the film they are united together for each other and their journey on a stage dancing to the tune of “Superfreak.” It is a dance for all they are and all they went through to get to this pageant. The dance scene is a scene to remember. It brings mixes together worlds of silent vows, homosexuality, suicide, failure, divorce, bankruptcy, and childhood, on a stage that pushes these characters to come to a loving acceptance of each other. It is a true bond that form. And that was family is…a bond that is impossible to properly define in words but so easy to understand actions and visuals.
Now it would be negligent of me to forget to talk about the VW Bus. It is character in its own. It has a personality. It is the perfect vehicle for the Hoover family. It is a physical space that forces the family to come together. The bus and its faults, the horn, the bad clutch, the broken door, are all symbols for the struggles the family endures. But just like family does, the Hoover’s come to accept the Bus as family and for all it is and will be. The Bus even gives a message to the audience. As the Hoovers continually have to push the Bus to get it moving and as they try to find the parking lot to the entrance of the beauty pageant, they are stuck in a cul-de-sac. It is a beautiful message that sometimes when you feel like life has you driving in circle you just have to say “Fuck beauty contests” and drive through the palm trees until you get where you need to be.
I end with an empty cup of what once was a Berry Boppin’ smoothie. With a half eaten Turkey Avocado panini. With the same two men from when I started writing, sitting directly in front of me on one laptop either catching up on their life stories or conducting business. With Pandora tuned into “Blur” Radio.
Beauty Pageant Host: Where’s your grandpa now?
Olive: He’s in the trunk of our car.”
’til next time,