Maxie Milieu finds herself in a uniquely qualified position to re-view Little Miss Sunshine on its tenth anniversary, as she is the reigning Little Miss Des Moines.
I feel uniquely qualified to provide this 10-year review for Little Miss Sunshine as I myself briefly dabbled in child pageants. I am the reigning Little Miss Des Moines. I won the local pageant in 1995 at the age of 6. They discontinued the local pageant after my victory, and so I have enjoyed a peaceful 21-year reign. I got to Princess Wave in our town’s parade while a top a giant yacht, cut a big red ribbon at the Christmas unveiling of Santa, and hold Miss Washington’s train in a fashion show (where I also subsequently convinced the tech guy to let me do my own walk down the catwalk. I had some chutzpah as a young child). This might lead you to believe that I am one of the aforementioned “winners” in life. However, like the characters in this film, I fall more aptly in the varied, unique, yet banal “loser” camp. As someone who peaked in grade school, most the moments in this film feel a great deal like my life since then. This film’s honesty, irony, physical comedy, witty banter, and big finale are continuously endearing as is its practically perfect portrayal of an averagely dysfunctional white American family on a road trip to the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant.
We open on a video recording of the crowning moment in a Miss America pageant. We watch the young Olive (Abigail Breslin) stop and rewind the tape repeating the moment the ecstatic winner clutches the sides of her face as if to keep her head from exploding. Olive imitates this moment precisely, the television reflecting in the think lenses of her glasses. Each of our characters is introduced by way of their current obsession or crisis, the things they think are most important. We shift to an introduction of Olive’s father, Richard. He is passionately presenting, on an overhead projector, to a room of about nine folks, a Nine Steps to Success pyramid, a program about being a winner. Dwayne, Abigail’s half-brother, (Paul Dano) works out in front of a portrait of Nietzsche, accounting for each day of training on an enormous wall sized spreadsheet. Alan Arkin, as Grandpa (seriously, he is listed as Grandpa in the credits), does drugs in a bathroom. A harried Toni Collette, as Olive’s mother Sheryl, drives to pick up someone from the hospital while talking on her cell phone and lying about smoking cigarettes. This someone turns out to be her brother Frank, played by a pre-breakout Steve Carell. Frank is America’s Number 1 Proust scholar and he recently attempted suicide. I feel this says a lot about academia both then and now. The title “Little Miss Sunshine” flashes word by word over the defeated, and plainly sad face of Steve Carrell. It is a beautiful and tragic irony. Toni Collette’s character enters the room, telling her brother “I’m glad you’re still here” to which Frank responds “That makes one of us.”
We segue to an extended family dinner scene. Sheryl is in charge of keeping Frank safe at home. This means bunking with Dwayne who has taken a vow of silence until he can achieve his goal of going to flight school to become a pilot. The shot of Sheryl and Frank entering the house after their silent car ride from the hospital has always struck me as interesting. In the foreground, out of focus, is what appears to be the wedding picture of Sheryl and Richard with a young Dwayne sulking in the corner, clearly a pre-Olive time. Sheryl and Frank enter in the upper right of frame, in focus, through the front door far away from the table this photo is positioned on. Even as they just enter the house, the framing suggests this familial distance, the difference between the blurry joy in the wedding photo vs. the stressed discord of family dinner. Throughout this extended scene, each character is shot in their own distinctive isolated framing. Whether in a door frame or the opening of the kitchen look through to the dining room, or in particular one shots or two shots in contrast with the conversation, the filmmakers took great care in making each character exist in their own world defined by visual divides. The camera often tracks the family members on their way to or from the family dinner table evoking a hectic disconnecting feeling despite the fact that everyone is sitting down to the same meal. The shots feel confined, even the wide static shot of the family all sitting at the dinner table maxes out the frame with Richard and Sheryl at opposing ends of the table.
Cut to a wide moving road shot in which the family in the bus enter in to the frame. We are now introduced to the expansive and quite beautiful shots of the cross-country road trip. Initially, the shots in the bus somewhat mimic the shots of the dinner table. Though the family is in an open bus (part of the bus choice was based on filming options as well as nostalgia from the director), initially we still get some more confined framing. However, the openness of the road breathes life in to the shots, suggesting the potential for emotional expansion.
The first car conversation deals with Grandpa’s drug use, which he feels great about because you’d be “crazy not to do [drugs] when your old” and adamantly encouraging Dwayne to get laid and “fuck a lot of women” while he’s still underage. Olive is listening to music during this conversation and hears none of it, but there is still a weird tension between Grandpa’s clear and pure love for Olive and his sexualization and objectification of women. A theme that fits squarely in with the true horror of child beauty pageants. Little Miss Sunshine exists in a pre-Toddlers and Tiaras world, and so, for the uninitiated, child beauty competitions still seem somewhat ephemeral, but the tension between having daughters and granddaughters in a world that values women only for their looks is at the forefront.
The family stops in at a diner, we see them squeezed in one booth, each of their faces covered by a menu. After Olive orders some breakfast ice cream, her father Richard begins to lecture her about the fact that ice cream has fat in it and eating it could make you fat. At this point we should note Olive’s styling in the movie. She has large glasses, long hair tied back with a scrunchy, often is wearing discordant outfits (headbands and cowboy boots all together), despite her love for beauty pageants and beauty queens, she doesn’t seem to have taken on their styling quite yet. She is six after all. Abigail Breslin also wore padding for the film to make her middle larger. Oy, do I have some feelings about all of this. I can’t help but think the conversation the filmmakers must have had with Abigail Breslin about wearing padding must have been basically the same conversation in the film about ice cream, only with a completely different objective.
Though Sheryl chastises Richard and tells Olive that its ok to be fat or ok to be skinny, Richard counters by pointing out to Olive that those Miss America girls are skinny, and that they probably don’t eat a lot of ice cream. When the ice cream arrives, Olive opts out of eating it. Body shaming success Richard. Eventually, the family goads Olive in to eating ice cream by enjoying it themselves and continually shushing Richard. It is uncomfortable and the entire family seem embarrassed by Richard but also uncomfortably aware that this is a reality of the world that Olive seems to want to be so much a part of. At one point, Olive asks “why is everybody so upset?” which Sheryl dismisses. Grandpa adds his positive spin by saying he “likes a woman with some meat on her bones” which, like, ok grandpa, but equating body size of any kind with sexual desirability is not actually a more empowering message. The film sits with this discomfort as we all sit with this discomfort every day of our lives.
The sequence is a true joy to watch and the first moment of fun and joy that the family experiences together. They all start out dubious but are somewhat overtaken by the physical thrill and oddness of their task. They all make it in, somewhat to their own surprise. We are truly on a road trip now as the film shows us some lovely landscape images, delightful bus shadow, and a montage of family on the road. Everyone seems a bit less stressed, except for Richard who drops a phone call from Stan Grossman, the guy who is allegedly selling his Nine Steps program at some conference. Panicking about the call Richard pulls in to a gas station to call Stan. Olive gets out to practice, Dwayne starts doing push-ups in the grass, and Grandpa gives Frank a twenty for some really nasty porn and a “fag rag.” Oh, yes, Frank is gay. I just don’t really care at this point about Grandpa’s homophobia. 10 years later, it’s just kind of whatever in this film. The fact that Frank is gay is, on the one hand, stereotypical of academics and suicidal characters, but on the other hand is sort of a non-issue.
While inside the convenience store Frank, who seems like he is feeling a bit less sad, runs in to the grad student he was in love with who is on a trip with Larry Sugarman, of McArthur Genius Fame, for a weekend at the spa or some shit. I hate this poncey grad student and his damned preppy sweater tied over his shoulders. Ugh why. The possibility that these two people would run in to each other at the same gas station both seems like a stretch, and, at the same time, the exact sort of coincidence that occurs when your life is really falling to shit. After grad students rolls out in Larry’s convertible, Frank brings the porn and his slushy back to the van to Grandpa. Grandpa has been looking over at Richard on the phone and surmises that the news he is receiving is not good. Sheryl comes out of the bathroom to intercept Richard who reveals that the book deal didn’t go through and they aren’t getting anything from all the work he’s put in. Essentially they are screwed. Sheryl is pissed and Richard dismissive. They all get back in the van, parked on a hill, and dejectedly roll back on to the freeway. Everyone is at an extremely low point when Dwayne points out, via the pad, that they’ve left Olive behind.
Olive is standing patiently at the gas station when the bus rolls in full tilt with the door open. She runs and is lifted in to the still moving van and they roll back out on to the road. Family is hard folks.
We open to the next scene with Olive’s voice saying, “Grandpa won’t wake up.” Yep, Grandpa did too many drugs the night before and died. At the hospital, the bereavement counselor is giving Richard all the paperwork and explaining the difficulty in transporting the body across the state. They are trying to get the pageant by 3:00 that afternoon which the counselor states simply won’t happen. In a distraction tactic Richard asks to view the body. The family gathers around Grandpa, covered in a white sheet. It’s this very sad honest moment. Then Richard decides to steal the body. Everything else has fallen away, no book deal, his dad has died, and the only thing he has left is the mission to get to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. The looks of horror on Paul Dano and Steve Carrell’s faces at this suggestion are truly priceless. Sheryl tries to talk Richard down, but he is on fire. “There are two kinds of people in this world, there’s winners and there’s losers. Are we winners or are we losers?” Sheryl concedes and sends Dwayne and Frank outside to catch Grandpa’s body as they shove him out the window. Olive is on watch. Thank goodness they are on the first floor.
We then follow the family as they run carrying the body of Grandpa through the parking lot and put him in the trunk of the van, then push the van and all hop in. Once all in the van, the reaction is less one of elation and more the pure existential horror of life. It all happens so quickly it can’t even really be processed. As they continue to drive, they are cut off and in honking at the other car, the horn keeps honking and won’t turn off. This is now a family in a constantly honking car with a dead body in the trunk. Then they get pulled over by a cop. After opening the trunk and getting distracted from discovering the dead body by the porn that falls out, the cop lets them go.
They are in the last leg of the journey. Olive starts giving Dwayne an eye test she got from the hospital. It turns out, Dwayne is colorblind. Looking back on the film, Dwayne’s room is all in black and white and his outfit choices are all monochromatic. Dwayne is in disbelief as Frank tells him, “You can’t fly jets if you’re colorblind.” This kid has been silent for nine months in his goal to enter flight school and he just discovered his dream is dead. He freaks the fuck out. They stop the van and Dwayne bursts from the car yelling his first word in months, a screaming extended “FUCK.” He calls the whole family losers and throws in their face all their failings and asks to be simply left behind. Dwayne running from the bus toward the camera is one of my favorite shots of the film. Sheryl gives up and Richard suggests that Olive go down to talk to him. She awkwardly makes her way down to Dwayne in her cowboy boots and simply lays her head on his shoulder. It is a sweet moment and Dwayne dejectedly, for his sister, gets back in the van.
The family is hustling to the pageant, missing the exit, circling back and trying to find an entrance to the hotel. The van can’t stop without needing to be re pushed and Richard is determined to make it to the pageant. The mad cap van driving is truly impressive. After jumping a curb to cut through to the hotel, Frank throws the van door open causing it to fall off and comedy runs through the hotel to try and make it by the 3:00 registration deadline. At this point of the film it is just unreasonable desperation to get to this pageant. Even though they are late and the registration woman with the big hair denies them, the indifferent tech guy allows them to register. (As I learned in my childhood, tech guys can be convinced.) They made it!
Back in pageant land, all the males of the family are coming to the conclusion that Olive should not be allowed to compete. I quote Dwayne when he says “this place is fucked” and we sethat Olive is not a beauty queen. He tasks Sheryl as “the mom” as needing to protect Olive. Sheryl balks as if to imply, “What the fuck do you think I’ve been doing this whole movie, my entire role is the mom, I have a job but no one has even mentioned it!” Sheryl defends that they have to let Olive be Olive, if she wants to compete, they need to support her choice. To her credit, she does give Olive the choice of going on or not and Olive decides to go for it. These scenes are inter-spliced with the other competitors, actual pageant kids, giving their performances.
We see Olive, in a black top hat, red tie, black vest and pants do the walk from backstage as the family rushes to the stage to see her. At this point we have seen the other girls and Olive clearly does not fit in. Though I have many feelings about child pageants, as does this film, I really hate being too critical of very young children who are just trying to do what they think they need to do to be liked and successful and loved. Is this a problem? For sure. Is it uncomfortable to watch? 100% But it’s not their fault that they look so terrifying. It’s not their fault that they are this overblown conception of femininity at age 6 or that this might be as much attention and adoration as they ever get in life. Dwayne is right, it is fucked, but it’s not their fault. It’s been 10 years since this film and I can’t help but wonder where these girls are now.
It’s showtime! Olive takes the stage with her family nervously watching. Olive calls over the announcer (an orange-ish fellow who previously sang a mediocre version of “America the Beautiful”) to dedicate the performance to her Grandpa who showed her the moves and is in the trunk of their car. I’ll be honest, 10 years ago when I saw this film the first time, I expected her to have this breakout amazing performance. The music starts and she begins performing to Rick James’ “Super Freak” complete with tear-away pants, butt slaps, intense struts, and growling. (It should be noted that Miss California is feeling Olive’s performance.). It is both terrible and amazing. In a competition where young girls are oversexualized in a way that is accepted the audience is upset by this performance that, while blatantly oversexualized in its own way, is more honest about it. Though she gets some boos, her family stands up to clap along for her. The big haired woman from registration tries to stop Olive’s performance but Richard intervenes eventually joining her in the performance which leads each family member one by one on to the stage. Though security is called, they have the best time together and seem to truly enjoy one another. Eventually, the music stops and they awkwardly stand there together. A muscled tattooed dad who previously ignored Richard stands up giving them the “rock on” sign bellowing “YEEEEEAAAAAHHHH.”
The family is released from any charges on the promise that they will never enter Olive in a pageant in California again, which they agree to. They put the van back together congratulating Olive on her performance (Grandpa has been taken to a funeral home) and after one final push, and breaking through a parking gate, they make their way back home with that loud obnoxious continually honking horn.
10 years later I still find this film delightful. It’s many moments of failure ring true and the one moment of success, coming together at Olive’s performance feels true as well.
– I was pleased that Miss California was a woman of color.
– I didn’t at all mention the music here, which is a shame as it deserves its own review because it is truly delightful music by Devotchka. In the year this film was released, I also performed a pointe dance to one of the tracks from this film. A large part of what makes the tone of this film work is the music.