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15 years of ‘Little Miss Sunshine’: More Relevant Now Than Ever

This comedy-drama teaches you self-love and blurs the line between winning and losing

Tanushi Bhatnagar Aug 22, 2021

Abigail Breslin in a still from 'Little Miss Sunshine.'

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Spoilers ahead

If there is anything that consumerism has ingrained in our minds, it’s intense competition. With increasing image issues and equally increasing numbers of motivational Type A figures, everyone seems to either embody a savior complex or a victim complex, best seen with social media influencers and their followers. 

Little Miss Sunshine, directed by the couple Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton and written by Michael Arndt, won a bucket-load of prestigious awards, including the Academy Awards and nominations. The 2006 comedy-drama brings a strong sense of realism and relatability to the screen – a trait that’s less popular among the early-2000s cinema. This story is a constant commentary on the unnecessarily competitive attitude that drives people to achieve above and beyond simply by putting the other down. Its objective of being comfortable with oneself is more relevant than ever today. Arndt’s way of doing that is through the subject of child beauty pageants — the most preposterous and baffling reality TV competitions to exist. 

An interesting plot. Even more interesting characters

While the broad theme of Little Miss Sunshine is hyper-competitiveness and winner/loser complex, in hindsight, Arndt also comments on various pressing issues like internalized homophobia, body shaming, mental illness and the influence of family as a social institution.

The characters in the movie seem to have jumped out of a contemporary young adult novel, much like those of Becky Albertalli (Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda) and David Levithan (Boy Meets Boy, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playist). Each of them has their personal problems, which create a strong sense of individualism. Simultaneously, they deliver the subtle notion of normalizing those problems as well. Olive (Abigail Breslin) is a pre-teen girl heavily influenced by Miss America beauty pageants and reality TV shows; Dwayne (Paul Dano) is a detached and isolated teenager who has sworn to be mute till he becomes a fighter pilot; Sheryl (Toni Collette), Olive’s mom, is perpetually overstressed haggling between her hyperactive, competitive husband and her growing children; Richard (Greg Kinnear), Olive’s dad, is the philosophical antagonist of the film who is allergic to ‘losers’; and Frank (Steve Carell) and Grandpa Edwin (Alan Arkin) play the ‘weirdos’ of the family, the former being gay, depressed and suicidal, and the latter a drug addict. While little Olive is the protagonist, the supporting characters hold an equally influential role in the movie’s plot. 

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The Hoover family is starkly different from what Olive aspires for. The glamorous reality TV life consumes her. Thus, the dysfunctional family hops into a Volkswagen yellow minivan to drive to a pageant 800 miles away. The minivan’s malfunctions become a metaphor for the family’s dysfunctionality. On a bigger note, it brings them all together as the six work as a team to fix their problems. On their journey, Richard remains a highly fat-shaming, homophobic, ultra-enthusiastic dad who feeds Olive the narrative of how to not be a loser and “remain skinny.” While channelizing a savior complex, he comments on everyone else’s shortcomings but overlooks his unsuccess in selling his self-help program. Sheryl acts like the spokesperson and protector of her children and brother as she counters Richard’s conservative nags and taunts with more liberal statements, which ultimately mount up to the movie’s overall message. 

The sunshine it brought 

The most important themes of Little Miss Sunshine are that of self-confidence and being true to oneself. Grandpa Edwin, a misfit among the misfits, becomes the biggest inspiration for Olive. His crazy ideas of believing in oneself and “not to care about what people say” ignite a spark in her eyes and give her hope to fight inevitable peer pressure — something Olive’s parents are too preoccupied to do. His carpe diem ideals instill a positive winning spirit in Olive, one which lacks arrogance and superiority. 

A positive attitude towards growth is something that even many adults lack. Olive, still in her growing age, does not understand the condemnation the beauty pageant culture brings and constantly questions why some things are bad, and some are good. She does not understand why she has to be skinny when her father tells her she will gain weight from ice cream. It is heartbreaking when we notice the influence of societal norms taking over her as her face turns cold even before the ice cream is served. Arndt does a brilliant job of making Richard the bad guy in a jiffy as everyone else pours over the ice cream making Olive jealous and finally give in to her wants – a small gesture for the family, but a big one Olive’s self-esteem. 

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Arndt strongly comments on the dichotomous mindless competitiveness. Although over-sexualization of 10-year-olds is acceptable in beauty pageants, Olive’s burlesque performance comes off as a shock. The entire Hoover family jumps on stage to show their support to Olive. Whereas they seem like geese in a group of swans, in reality, they are just as normal as normal can be. 

Truth be told, Little Miss Sunshine may seem like a light-hearted comedy, but it introduces the hard-hitting concept that not every story has to end on a happy note. Keeping the realism aspect alive, not every character redeems itself at the end. While the yellow minivan brings the family together, each character is truly liberated of their vices in the “Super Freak” (Rick James) dance sequence. Richard realizes his unsuccess and loosens his control; Sheryl remains overstressed; Dwayne’s dream of being a fighter pilot is shattered due to color blindness and Grandpa Edwin succumbs to a heroin OD. It teaches you that not everything will be okay in the end, but you will learn to adjust and emerge more human than ever — a bad situation is only bad enough if you want it to be.

Stream ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ on Disney+Hotstar. Watch the trailer below.

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