Little Miss Sunshine has a very simple plot. A family travels so the daughter can compete in a child beauty pageant. When you think about it, not a lot happens to the family on their journey. They don’t run into too many of the typical road trip movie obstacles, but they are all different people by the end of it. The film’s strength is in the characterization of the six family members. While they all have some sort indi-film character quirk, the actors transform them into a relatable family. What the film is truly about is family, and how, even when things don’t work out, you’re not a loser if you have people who love you.
This was the world’s introduction to Abigail Breslin, a very talented young actress who will be interesting to watch in the upcoming years as she transitions from a child to teen to adult actress. When we first see her character, Olive, she is watching a beauty pageant, clearly dreaming of being a winner one day. However, Olive is an unfortunate looking child. She’s plain, she wears glasses, she’s chubby. While, a sweet girl, you find yourself feeling sorry for her, having an unrealistic dream. We learn that she has been chosen to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine competition, forcing the somewhat dysfunctional family to cram into their van for a few days on the road. As they get closer to the competition, Olive does express doubts about her chances of winning, and feels pressure to win because her father’s self-help plan that emphasizes the importance of winning. Olive eventually learns the world of beauty pageants is not for her and that she is surrounded by people who love her and that is more important than being perfect all the time.
The relationship between Olive and her grandfather (Alan Arkin) is very touching. Grandpa is cranky and an admitted heroin user, but around his granddaughter, he’s a sweetheart. He is Olive’s choreographer for the pageants; his routine for her brings the film’s biggest laughs. There is a scene between them, where Olive expresses her fears about winning and her grandfather tells her he loves her, not for her personality or her intelligent, but because she’s the most beautiful girl in the world. It’s a funny moment because that’s exactly what you shouldn’t be telling a child, but it shows how important it is for children to have people in their lives that think they are most perfect creature alive. Another interesting element is that through this interaction with his son (Greg Kinnear), he was not this constant source of love for his own children, only Olive.
Sadly, this is their last moment together. Olive finds him dead the next morning. The scenes in the hospital hit very close to home for me. It encapsulates the disconnect one can feel in the hospital where, you’re experiencing one of the worst days in your life but, to those in the hospital, it’s just another day.
This film was a real change of pace for Steve Carell. He plays a homosexual Proust expert who attempted to kill himself after his lover left for him for his academic rival. I found his performance to be pretty perfect. It’s very subtle but he has this cloud of sadness hanging over him, even as he starts to see that everything is going to be ok. He’s an interesting character because while these people are, for the most part, his family, they are unknown to him. You get the impression there has been intentional distance kept between them, but it’s not clear who was enforcing it. While Carell is very good at wacky, I find him to be very refreshing in his quieter roles.
This was also the first big film for Paul Dano who plays Dwayne, the sullen teenage son who has taken a vow of silence until he becomes a fighter pilot. Like the others, he learns his dream is not obtainable. Dano does a lot with a character that doesn’t speak for two acts. When he finally does begin talking, during his flip out when he learns he can never join the air force, you see all he’s kept bottled up. You also see his tender side, when he tries to stop Olive for competing in the pageant. He knows Olive doesn’t belong in that world and while he thinks that world is bullshit, he still doesn’t want his little sister to be rejected by them.
This is an interesting film because every character goes through some sort of great change. When we meet them, they are all so focused on their goals, they have ignored each other. By the end of film, they have all lost their dream but they all gained a family. Say it with me, “Awwww”.