May 23, 2020

“Little Miss Sunshine” Review: The Judgement of a Smile

by Danial Cousins

Little Miss Sunshine is a film containing many heavy moments, and poor methods of coping. The film makes it clear to the audience that we are all judged in our daily lives, and we see this most clearly through the hopeful eyes of the young Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin). At the start of the film, Olive finds out that she has proceeded into the second round of a beauty contest named “the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant.” As the contest is in California, the entire family, including the uncle Frank Ginsburg (Steve Carrell), who is currently staying with the family (because he attempted to kill himself), must travel across states to California for the competition. This film deals with such difficult topics, and approaches to life in a skilled, and yet highly comedic manner that truly makes the story shine.

Dark and “inappropriate” humor is a constant throughout the story. The concept of death is dealt with by true vulnerability, however, comedy is used as a method to release tension and bring humanity to moments where it is otherwise lost. Each dark moment within the film is dealt with to its full extent. The comedy is not used to cheapen the moments of loss, pain, and frustration, rather as an afterthought the audience is able to laugh along with the characters through shared experiences and growth.
There were several noteworthy performances in this movie, especially including that of the character Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear), and Dwayne (Paul Dano). These two specific characters are pinned against one another from the start. At the base level their philosophies do not match up, and Richard is under the opinion that his philosophies should be shared by all. Richard is fueled in this because he aims to sell a self-help program called “The 9-Step Refuse-to-Lose Program.” He drones on about the path that winners take, and turns his family against him through his effectively negative “positive thinking.”

Dwayne is more partial to the words of philosopher Nietzsche. He believes in his own suffering, focuses on his one goal of becoming an Air Force pilot, and takes a vow of silence until he has accomplished that goal. Dwayne claims several times to hate everyone, including his own family, but is shown through his actions and emotions to contradict these thoughts. Both of these characters experience immense pain, through grief, lose of purpose, judgement, and fear as the story continues. Despite their vastly different philosophies on life and future goals, both of these characters come to deal with these distresses through their family and shared experience. This film shows how a group of people can go through so much in a short period, but come out stronger and closer as a result.

This film deals with major problems within our society of damaging judgement, self hatred, and harmful standards. The concept of beauty pageants as a general concept is horrible, even before children are involved. From the first shot of the film the audience sees the effect that such toxic images of beauty and competition have on Olive. The Little Miss Sunshine Pageant as realistically shown in the film is in one word “disgusting” and, if pressed for another, I would use “horrifying.” Such treatment of children warps their self worth, and needlessly sexualizes children for a contest of beauty judged by adults. As Dwayne cleverly states “Life is just one fucking beauty contest after another,” and clearly this is an establishment that needs to be shut down. However, it is the point of Frank, referencing the ideas of Marcel Proust, that it is the suffering we go through that creates our best selves. We learn when we suffer. We will go through unnecessary, disgusting, and evil beauty contests in life but at least we can stick to our loved ones and learn from these experiences. 
Olive cares so much about winning this competition, and she puts her heart and soul into creating a performance, and being perceived as beautiful as a seven-year-old and vulnerable little girl. The thought of her being judged and damned for her appearance and skill should be vomit inducing before even taking her youth into consideration. This film is important for conveying the correct amount of shame to those who would subject their own children willingly to such treatment, and delivers the correct messages that “You do what you love, and fuck the rest” and “Losers are people who are so afraid of winning, they don’t even try.”

Little Miss Sunshine is a beautifully shot piece of art. The continued use of yellow echoing the color of the yellow van that they make this journey in really resonates with the films concepts on how the trip relates to the characters’ lives. When the story is dark and low, the audience feels that deeply, and when the characters ride high, one can’t help but smile and laugh along. Objectively speaking, the characters gain very little and lose a lot from this trip, but it is shown that they all learn to experience the moment to their fullest extent. The family and audience is better off from where they started, as the experiences all brought unique lessons.

I would recommend Little Miss Sunshine to most anyone with the slightest interest in movies, or even just stories. This story should bring uninhibited laughter, tears, smiles, and winces to just about every audience member. It is a film that I often come back to for compelling performances, and especially a good laugh. It is a crime against film not to see this movie before you die. [Grade: A+]

Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton
Writer: Michael Ardnt
Starring: Abigail Breslin, Paul Dano, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, Steve Carell
Rated: R for language, some sex and drug content
Available: Amazon Prime
Fun Fact: Abigail Breslin wore a fatsuit to play the role of Olive. Her commitment to the role paid off in an Oscar nomination the following year.

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