The film Little Miss Sunshine is a perfect representation of modern life in America. The Hoover family, although incredible eccentric in many ways, could be any lower to middle class family living in the US. At the same time, nothing about the family is “normal.” What makes the film so profound is how everyone can relate to the characters in some way, or they know someone who is just like one of the characters. If the upbeat theme song does not put the audience in a good mood, then the realization that no matter how little we have in this world, we will always have family, definitely will.
Little Miss Sunshine is the story of the Hoover family’s journey from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Redondo Beach, California in their old Volkswagen bus. The trip is made so that the youngest Hoover, Olive (Abigail Breslin) can compete in the Little Miss Sunshine child beauty pageant. It turns into a typical family road trip filled with mishaps and roadblocks where nothing goes according to plan. Of course, the Hoover’s mishaps are a little more outrageous than the average family’s, but they each face these challenges and learn something about themselves and their family as they go.
What makes the Little Miss Sunshine work so well is the ensemble cast, which includes:
Abigail Breslin as Olive Hoover, who love nothing more than beauty pageants. Despite her desire to win, she is not your average child beauty queen. She is a plump, bespectacled girl always wearing red to highlight her vibrancy and determination, and she is without the fancy dresses and money associated with pageantry.
Greg Kinnear as Richard Hoover, Olive’s dad. He is a nine-steps-to-success motivational speaker who aspires to be an inspirational author. Meanwhile, his wife is the sole breadwinner and his family is struggling.
Toni Collette as Olive’s mother, Sheryl Hoover. She is the provider in the Hoover family and is struggling to keep them all happy while maintaining her own sanity. She is the glue holding it all together.
Paul Dano as the brother, Dwayne Hoover, who has taken a vow of silence and has not spoken for nine months. His silence will only end when he reaches his goal of flying jets for the air force. He hates everyone, including his family members.
Alan Arkin plays Grandpa Edwin Hoover (Greg’s father), the regretful, horny, heroin-snorting old man who shows that he genuinely loves Olive and his family as he helps Olive with her dance routine.
Steve Carell as Frank Ginsberg, Olive’s uncle and Sheryl’s brother. He is recovering from a recent suicide attempt and staying with his sister. He is the “preeminent Proust scholar in the US.” Or he was until he fell in love with a male student who left him for the now number one Proust scholar, which lead to his attempted suicide.
The six actors work together so well that it is impossible to pick out a real “star of the show.” They feed off of each other with their dialogue and non-verbals, drawing us all in to their little world. Each line of dialogue is both something uniquely Hoover and something that could be picked out of any real life conversation. Some of it is vulgar and surprising, and some of it is beautiful or humorous. It helps bring the characters to life.
Each character has their own battle to contend with in the film. I think they each feel alone and think that they must work through their issues solo, but they learn to come together through Olive. They all know that she is not cut out to be a pageant girl, but they stick up for her anyway. While they are partially appalled by her performance to “Super Freak,” they also know that Olive is just being herself, and they are completely proud of her for it. Even Richard, who is obsessed with winning, learns that winning just isn’t what is important in the end.
With a different cast, I am not sure this film would have been as successful. The characters are so dependent on each other, that I find it amazing they were able to find six actors who could work together so well and function like a real, dysfunctional family.
Everything about the movie, expect the family itself, has a sunny feeling. The bus they drive is yellow. They are driving through the sunny South-Western US. Most of the characters are wearing bright colors–whites, blues, reds. Even the idea of beauty pageants is upbeat and picture perfect.The theme song “The Winner Is” is also upbeat, bouncy, and hopeful. It is the kind of song I would like to start my day or make the soundtrack of my life. Meanwhile, the brother refuses to speak, the uncle recently attempted suicide, Mom and Dad are threatening to get a divorce, the grandpa dies, and the daughter does a strip tease to “Super Freak” as her talent. The darkness of the familial problems are contrasted sharply by the environment of the film.
It helps that despite the dark themes expressed in the movie, writer Michael Arndt and directors Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris are able to pull comedy from them. It is very much in the style of one of my favorite writer/directors, Joss Whedon, where he hits the audience with tragedy or something deep and important but at exactly the right moment, he hits the audience with comedy. In Little Miss Sunshine we see this so many times. One moment that it really stood out is when Grandpa Hoover dies. It is completely heart breaking, and we all think that the Hoovers’ journey is over. Then Richard gets the idea to smuggle the body out of the hospital, and we are hit with this image of the family shoving dead grandpa out the window.
Little Miss Sunshine has a lot of unique elements working together, from the contrasting dark characters and sunny scenery and music to the perfected cast ensemble to the balance of drama and comedy. It all comes together to produce an enjoyable film experience.