Sunday, January 28, 2007


Little Miss Sunshine(2006, R, 101 min.)

by Jonathan Dayton &
Valerie Faris
Written by Michael Arndt

Abigail Breslin...Olive

Greg Kinnear...Richard
Paul Dano...Dwayne
Alan Arkin...Grandpa
Toni Collette...Sheryl
Steve Carell...Frank

Little Miss Sunshine is the deservedly R-rated, road-trip movie of the Hoovers, a dysfunctional family, as they take their homely and plumb, 7-year-old Olive from their New Mexico home to a "Little Miss" beauty pageant in California. The story asks the question: What is a "winner" and what is a "loser."

This is not a movie I would recommend for purposes of entertainment because of the vulgarity, and general dysfunctional skewyness. It's not "family" entertainment, although it may be about a more typical American family than I'm willing admit. But it is a film that can ironically play a role in helping to promote vitreous moral values. The movie was made for about $8M, and as of this writing has grossed about $60M. It has also garnered a good many awards, with 4 Academy nominations, including Best Picture. Certainly this movie connects with a good many people in America. So, I offer these observations about the film's moral premise.


The drama and comedy come from the desperately different and unattainable goals each of the main character has inappropriately latched onto. In their unique ways, each is a "looser" as the world would define it—none are at the top of their chosen games, and each could easily vie for last place.

OLIVE dreams of being a beauty queen, although she has little talent, and a rotund body. She repeatedly watches beauty pageants on a DVD, and practices being surprised at winning. We are told she rehearses her talent that Grandpa has taught her. Although, no one has seen her "talent," which is saved for the film's climax. Happenstance puts her into the final running of a distant once-in-a-life-time little miss pageant 2 days drive away, and circumstances force the entire clan into a yellow VW bus for the trip.

RICHARD, the clan's father, dreams of being a motivational speaker with this "9-steps" that will supposedly take any loser and turn him or her into a winner. But Richard, unfortunately, has barely achieved Step 3, although he is bargaining for a book deal that he hopes will put him in the national limelight. Someone should tell him that they throw "lime" on corpses.

DWAYNE, is the disgruntled 15-year old, who reads Nietzsche, says he hates everyone, and has taken a vow of silence until he can get in the Air Force Academy and learn to fly jets.

GRANDPA, is the vulgar, self-proclaimed playboy, with a heroin habit and Nazi bullets hidden in his body. He encourages Dwayne to bed as many women as he can, and fancies himself as the loving role model and pageant talent coach for Olive. We can't wait to see what Grandpa has taught Olive. On second thought, you can wait -- a life time.

SHERYL, is the stressed out mom who smokes in secret. Because movies have no smell, this works. Sheryl's goal is for the family to love each other and for her and Richard to have a normal married relationship. This goal is actually one that is worth not only rooting for, but is possible. In fact, Sheryl's goal (and character) is the only one that is not quirky, and perhaps for good reason.

Who's left? Oh, yeah, how could we forget UNCLE FRANK. And we shouldn't forget Uncle Frank, who is put under the care of his sister, Sheryl, while he emotionally recovers from an attempted wrist-slashing suicide. Why did he try to kill himself, asks Olive. Well, as Frank tries to explain to the innocent Olive, he fell in love with a male graduate student who ran off with his academic competitor and No. 2 Proust (prust) Scholar in America, who also beat out Frank for a Rockefeller Fellowship, and all of that resulted in Frank being fired from the university.
RICHARD: Who's the No. 1 Proust Scholar, Frank.
FRANK: I am, Richard.
Before we can discuss the Moments of Grace and the story's moral premise, it's necessary to set up the underlying conflict of values as articulated in the writings of French novelist and essayist Marcel Proust (d. 1922), and German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (d. 1900). As mentioned above, Uncle Frank is a Proust scholar, and he's paired up with his Nietzsche reading, vow-of-silence nephew, Dwayne. This is not just a superficial pairing, because slivers of Proust and Nietzsche thinking about the meaning of suffering articulate what this move is really about.

The Nietzsche sliver used by LMS's writer Michael Arndt is the absence of a moral transcendence -- e.g. man must create his own moral standards. Nietzsche is the philosopher that announced "God is Dead," and on Dwayne's T-Shirt the inscription, which is slowly revealed, reads: "Jesus was Wrong." Nietzsche, it could be argued, is one of modernity's father's of moral relativism. He dies insane in 1900, only to be picked up, morphed, and canonized by Adolph Hitler for emboldening the Third Reich reign of terror. For Nietzsche, the suffering he experiences is mental. There is no happiness for Nietzsche, only the hope of a superman, eternal re-occurrence, and the will to power—the three themes, by the way, of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of my favorite films.

On the other hand, the philosophical sliver from Proust is that out of a lifetime of suffering we can find happiness; or coming from another direction, it is the experiences of suffering throughout life that bring meaning and allow us to know happiness. Personally, for Proust the suffering was physical that forced him to spend the last three years of his life in a corked-lined bedroom writing his magnum opus—a seven volume novel translated variedly but most recently as In Search of Lost Time. It is perhaps the longest novel ever written, and some claim the best. Those that make a lifetime of its study are called Proust Scholars.

Dwayne and Frank, therefore, are like contrary but similarly lost souls who are the movie's Greek Choruses. They are like dueling philosophers, who on the end of a pier overlooking an unpredictable, deep and dark ocean, try to analyze the human condition and find meaning in man's sufferings.

When the movie begins each of the Hoover clan is unhappy, except for the hopeful Olive when she's invited to the pageant. The source of their sadness is the self-indulgent, moral relativism that dominates their lives. It is as if Dwayne's larger than life-size bed-sheet painting of Nietzsche that hangs on his bedroom wall, has brought a curse to the household, so that each member reeks with a passion to seek their own way regardless of anyone else's needs. And like Nietzsche, each character fails in their life's pursuit and falls into a suffering despair.


Sheryl's dream of a functional family is lost to her harried permissiveness.

Richard's deal for a book falls through, because he's a nobody.

Frank's lover, fellowship award, and job are lost, turning him to suicide.

Dwayne's goal of being a jet pilot crashes, when he discovers he's color blind.

Olive's dream of being a beauty queen is dashed by a lack of knowledge and talent

And Grandpa's goal of being Olive's hero and coach is cut short by death from an overdose.

Each of these failures has its root in Nietzsche's claim that there is no transcendent morality, although we can be called to achieve "superman" status even as each of us finds their own moral way. Dwayne hates his self-described "hell" of waiting to get through high school. He says to Frank at the end of the pier:
DWAYNE: You know what? Fuck beauty contests. Life is one fucking beauty contest after another. School, then college, then work. Fuck that. And fuck the Air Force Academy. If I want to fly, I'll find a way to fly. You do what you love, and fuck the rest.
But, of course, it is exactly that worldview that has catapulted Dwayne and the family into their personal and social dysfunctions and sadness.

On the other hand, we find this sliver of Proust's thinking, perhaps selectively plucked from those seven volumes (which I have not read), that speaks of virtue and some hope, and is, quite frankly and perhaps inadvertently, in keeping with Judea-Christian thinking:
Out of life's suffering comes the meaning of life and happiness.
It is as if this concept slowly invades the family along with Frank's invasion. Although Frank may be a Proust scholar he obviously hasn't learned this little tidbit of truth. Perhaps he needed to be couped up with a Nietzsche scholar to understand Proust by comparison. (So much for study in the Proust ghetto.)

Each of our characters has their moment of grace, where they are confronted by that Proust truth, and upon it they must each choose. And it is because the consequences of those choices aligns with our perception of reality, that grounds this film's popularity. These are extreme characters, but they experience reality as we know it is, regardless of the political or social ideology of how we think reality should be. In other words, regardless of our moral relativism, natural law is still boss, and this movie reinforces that truth in an entertaining and arresting way.


While we might argue that Olive is the story's protagonist, she is only the protag by virtue of providing the story's physical motivation of getting her to the pageant in time for registration. (Ticking clocks do work -- and wonderfully in this movie.) But Little Miss Sunshine, I will argue, has six protagonists and each has a Moment of Grace upon which their character's plight swings.

At 31 minutes into the story, the VW's clutch fails and the only way to get to the pageant on time is for everyone to get out and push until the van gets up to a third-gear speed -- and then one-by-one, jump into the van via the side door. The broken down van brings suffering, and out of that suffering everyone puts aside their personal disgruntledness, gets out and pushes, then jumps or are pulled in (no stunt doubles here), and off the van goes down "Carefree Hwy." The result is glee, happiness, and satisfaction...for a while at least, until selfishness sets back in. But the experience points the whole family down the right road, literally and figuratively. Now that they've learned something together, it's time for each to deal with their personal issues one-on-one, and make a choice about the moral premise.

Before we look at the individual MOG's let's decipher the moral premise. Here are some possible ways to state the moral premise for this film based on the conflict of values that Proust (via Frank) and Nietzsche (via Dwayne) bring to the story.

Doing what I want and ignoring the needs of others
leads to dread; but

Doing what others need, putting aside my needs
leads to happiness.

Or, put another way:

Rejection of personal suffering
leads to confusion and sadness; but

The embrace of personal suffering
leads to purpose and happiness.

Defining success as the attainment of power
leads to sadness; but

Defining success as serving others
leads to happiness.
Or put simply:

Pride leads to failure and sadness; but
Humility leads to success and happiness.

Or, in the movie's vernacular:

Expecting others to alleviate our suffering
leads to losing; but

Alleviating the suffering of others
leads to winning.

Now, let's look at the moments of grace for each character, to understand how the movie consistently applies the above true moral premise.

Richard's moment of grace is when Stan Grossman tells him (twice) that there is no book deal, because nobody knows who Richard is. Richards is a nobody. Up to this time Richard expected Stan Grossman to provide Richard with prestige and power. When Grossman says no, Richard takes it badly, and Sheryl is also gravely disappointed in putting her trust in Richard's dream as well. But Richard embraces the moral premise's truth, and dedicates himself all the more to getting Olive to the pageant on time. Sheryl, too, follows Richard's lead, and their decision adds to the healing of their relationship. Richard could have rejected the moral premise, and instead of taking off at night to seek his dream and Stan Grossman, Richard could have sacrificed Olive's need and used the family's travel time during the day to try to get his book deal back on track. Richard is determined to persevere in his dream, but for now he puts it aside to serve the needs of Olive.

Grandpa's first moment of grace comes after Richard first rejection by Grossman. Richard, mad, depressed, and after a short argument with Sheryl, gets back in the van and continues to drive. After Dwayne discovers that Olive isn't with them, they go back and pick her up. Then, as they continue to drive, Grandpa comes forward, kneels besides Richard and says to him, with his arm around him as he drives:
GRANDPA: Richard...whatever happens. You tried to do something on your own, which is more than most people would ever do, and I include myself in that category. You took a big chance. It took guts and I'm proud of you.
This is a starling moment for Grandpa, who has been so self-serving up to this point, except for encouraging Olive. This moment on his knees (of humility), and his enthusiasm for pushing the van (selflessness), reveals that down deep he loves his family, and his happiness and virtuous pride comes out of Richard and Sheryl's suffering. It is a moment that also helps Sheryl to heal in her relationship with Richard.

Frank's moment of grace occurs just before the movie begins, as soon as his sister, Sheryl, takes him in. We might say that when he was rejected by so many situations in his life he rejected the moral premise and decided to following the path to sadness, dread, and death. But he's given a second chance, and this time he embraces the moral premise, and tries his best to make things go as smoothly as they can for Sheryl. He sees her suffering, and he's determined to do whatever he's asked to do, and then some to alleviate her suffering. At the beginning of the movie he is definitely that quintessential loser. But by movie's end he's proving himself more and more to be a winner in the eyes of the family.

Grandpa's second moment of grace occurs during the family's first night in a motel. After supposedly coaching Olive on her talent competition and tucking her in bed he goes into the bathroom, locks the door, and snorts some heroin. The next morning, Olive announces to her family that Grandpa won't wake up. At the hospital the family is told Grandpa died. Grandpa chooses the dark side of the moral premise, and tries to alleviate his loser mentality with heroin. It's a selfish act. There was much he could have done to help others, and he was happy when helping to push the van, coach Olive, and encourage Richard. But that wasn't enough for him, and his life ends in tragedy. His family, rallies, however, much as they did when the van's clutch broke. They steal his body out a hospital window, into the back the van for the morning drive to the pageant, where they find a funeral home to take care of Grandpa's remains. In the suffering of Grandpa's death, the family again puts aside their selfish tendencies, and words together for the good of another (e.g. "stealing" Grandpa's remains from an uncaring hospital and a rude bereavement counselor, and helping Olive get to the pageant on time.)

Dwayne's moment of grace comes in the van when Olive gives him an eye-test. When she gets to the color-blindness test, he flunks it. He doesn't know what that means, until Frank tells him he can't fly jets if he's colorblind. Dwayne loses it, and threatens to knock a
hole in the van's roof or sidewall from his sudden distress. Richard pulls over the van and stops, and Dwayne bolts out of the van and down a hill into a barren field, and for the first time breaks his vow of silence. He lands on the ground and yells his distress. Above him on the side of the hill is the van, and his family standing in a row, and above them is the blue beyond. I'm sure the filmmakers were hoping for a jet contrail to appear. It would have been perfect. (Wait, maybe that's exactly what is in the blue sky behind them?!) Sheryl comes down the hill to comfort him and try to get him back in the van. But Dwayne, fully embracing the selfish side of the moral premise proclaims how he hates the family for a whole litany of reasons and how he's not ever getting back in the van. All is lost, it seems, and they may leave him there in the wilderness of his own choosing. (Nietzsche would be proud.) But Olive ventures down the steep incline to talk to Dwayne. She kneels next to him. (Kneeling could be come a visual motif of this movie.) Silence. And then -- simply puts her arm around him, and rests her head on his shoulder. They don't move for a while, and then Dwayne, says "OK, let's go." They walk up the hill, and Dwayne speaks clearly through tears of sadness:
DWAYNE: I apologize for the things I said. I was upset. I didn't really them.
And in so doing, Dwayne thinks of his sister, and the others, and embraces the truth of the moral premise. (Amazing what the act of kneeling can do and mean.)

It might be noted, that in the previous sequence, Dwayne was beginning to see the needs of others as more important. In the hospital waiting room, after the family learns of Grandpa's passing, he writes a note to Olive, "Go hug Mom." Olive does. Now, Olive follows Dwayne's advice again, and hugs him. No words are spoken. My wife was reminded of Saint Francis of Assisi's commission to his companions, "Go and preach the Gospel everywhere, and if necessary, use words." (Although, I think following St. Francis DeSale's tactics of chasing after people and yelling the Gospel at them in a loud voice, can also have a positive effect. In DeSale's situation it helped to convert most of Southern France.)

Sheryl's moment of grace seems to be every time she makes a decision to help the family attain it's goals. When Richard is distraught over losing the book deal she finally gets back in the van, but does so, for Olive's sake. When Richard decides to steal Grandpa's body from the hospital, she hesitates, and then pitches in. She's thinking, it's good for Grandpa and for Olive, and she's supporting her husband's need to persevere and be a winner, as newly defined by Grandpa when he tells Richard he's proud of Richard for trying what others would not.

Finally, Olive's moment of grace comes at the end of the movie when she has a chance of backing out of the contest when she recognizes, as well as the rest of her family, that to go on stage and do anything would be humiliating at best. She's not beauty queen material...meaning she doesn't have the external beauty or talent that the other little girls have. She is given the option to compete or walk out. She decides to go through with it, and the results are disastrous. She embarrasses nearly everyone by doing a mock, bump & grind, strip-tease to the tune her late Grandpa picked out titled: "She's a Super Freak." Not only is Grandpa repudiated for teaching her the routine, but the pageant organizer tries to get Olive off stage, to no avail, and then calls on Richard to drag his daughter off. But when Richard walks on stage to get Olive, he's so proud of her for her courage, it's as if Grandpa's words are being repeated:
GRANDPA: You tried to do something on your own, which is more than most people would ever do...You took a big chance. It took guts and I'm proud of you.
And so Richard begins to dance, mockingly, with his daughter, and soon, the whole family joins them on stage.

It is immaterial that they are escorted to the security office and told they can leave (without being arrested and charged) if they promise never again to enter Olive in a California beauty contest. To which Frank replies:
FRANK: I think we can live with that.
Now, there are at least two ways to read Olive's decision to compete, and they both reinforce the moral premise. If we read it as her pride wanting to do her own selfish thing, we see it ending in near catastrophe as a competitor. She doesn't just lose the contest, she's nearly jailed. She's tested the negative side of the moral premise and it holds true.

But the other way to read her decision is this: She decides to compete because the rest of her family have sacrificed so much to give her this chance, and she wants to do it, selflessly, for them. After all, she promised her Dad that she was going to win, and then she dedicates the dance to her Grandpa for his love and encouragement, albeit a bit skewed. By competing, regardless of the odds, she fulfills the words of virtuous pride that Grandpa said to Richard by trying something most people never do.

But there is a more important aspect of the ending that my writing partner, Bill Wiitala, pointed out. Olive's bump-'n-grind is done out of an innocent heart for the sake of her family who have sacrificed so much for her. She and her family realize that the "beauty contest" that IS worth competing in, is one of selflessness, sacrifice, and suffering. The "beauty contest" that is of value is one of inner beauty and love. If Olive is going to suffer embarrassment, then the whole family will share in her suffering and lift her up. Opposing this concept is the importance of external beauty, a fake and put-on beauty, attended to by pushy stage-moms, sprayed on tans, fake smiles, and jaded attitudes. What the mothers of the little miss competitors hold up as important will be celebrated later in life by the biker dudes in adult strip clubs. So, there is this eloquent irony at the movie's end where Olive's bump-'n-grind satirizes what the little miss pageant is "really" about. It's a movie moment where a "strip-tease" means just the opposite of physical seduction. It is, in fact, a seduction of the inner heart.


In many ways Little Miss Sunshine is a love story between father and daughter, and how the whole family learns to honor that love by sacrificing themselves for that love's endearment. They all start out as losers, but by movie's end, and because of the dysfunction and suffering, have put aside their selfish desires and replaced them with the interest of others. In that way the movies ends with the Hoover family being all winners, happy, and a bit less dysfunctional.

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