Directed by: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Written by: Michael Arndt
Late in Little Miss Sunshine there’s what could be an interesting interaction between characters played by two memorable actors: Paul Dano (as Dwayne) and Steve Carell (as Frank). Frank, a depressed-with-a-brave-face professor speaks to Dwayne, his rebellious Nietzschian nephew by telling him to embrace his suffering à la Proust. The scene, however, is emblematic of Little Miss Sunshine’s plot structure.
Little Miss Sunshine is the story of a family’s last minute road trip to ensure their seven year-old daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) competes in a beauty pageant. The film is a road comedy. It is defined by a series of mishaps, its eccentric cast, and its protagonists spending substantial time in their whimsical vehicle. I am often intrigued by the synopses of road comedies and can see the temptation to make them. The idea of having adventures pop up as things go wrong on the road feels like the kind of thing a write could plausibly imagine happening to themself. As such, these stories provide a nice bridge between our realities and imaginations.
But the realness of road comedies are what makes them hard to ride. Their characters are physically confined by a vehicle, and this confining structure guides writers to strive (successfully or not) for dramatic and comedic burst in place of a more fluid storytelling structure.
Little Miss Sunshine has another structural limit that goes beyond the typical road comedy problem. One way road stories accumulate their quirky casts is by having them show up along the way. We see this structure successfully employed in numerous stories from “The Town Musicians of Bremen,” to The Land Before Time, to Labyrinth. Little Miss Sunshine, however, is the story of a family and, as such, all of its characters know each other (and are present) from the get go. In this way Little Miss Sunshine makes the same comedic mistake as do many animated, family-comedies. The story does not build up to its comedy, nor does it find an important narrative rhythm. Instead it throws silliness at you: “look everybody, this dad (Greg Kinnear) is a soulless motivational speaker, Dwayne hates everybody, this grandpa is a crude (Alan Arkin), LAUGH!”
The film’s rushed-comedy also influences its emotional beats. In that scene where Frank and Dwayne bond, for instance, it doesn’t feel like an organic, built-to interaction. Instead it comes across as the script saying “look everybody, moody Dwayne is showing he can be reached: FEEL MOVED!” A similar comedy-to-heartfelt structure is employed in a scene with Olive and her Grandfather. In fairness, however, this scene comes across as a more thought out exploration of how a corrupted figure could be tender. This subtle distinction was enough to win Alan Arkin a best supporting actor Oscar, but nonetheless left me frustrated that he didn’t get another great scene going forward.
If I were to propose a fix for Little Miss Sunshine I would find a way for it to be more a first person, or protagonist-centred story: to show it through the eyes of a “normal” character, who is gradually tormented by their families difficulties. This would allow for a more flowing dramatic and comedic buildup. Perhaps that character could have been Olive’s mom (Toni Collette), though she is a bit too normal for my tastes. A better alternative protagonist could have been her brother, Frank.
Frank is not a larger than life character in the way that Dwayne, father Richard and grandpa Edwin are, but there is a case to be made that Steve Carrell should have been amongst those who received an acting nomination for the film. Frank, a middle-aged man, spends much of the movie cooped up in a passenger next to his seven-year-old niece. He is never put in a leadership position. He always looks vaguely sad, but remains a beacon of rationality. Frank is gay, something that was far less normalized in 2006 than it is in 2020. He also, prior to the film, attempted suicide.
If Little Miss Sunshine has a theme, its about the difference between how eccentrics-and-outsiders are perceived versus who they are. Kinnear, Dano and Arkin play characters who we as viewers can guiltlessly ridicule; they are parodies, they were written to be laughed at. Real life outsiders, however, are more like Carrell’s character: marginalized not because they storm out into the world and ask for it, but because they have been subject to complex webs of trauma.
While Little Miss Sunshine is not Frank’s srtory, it is sort of the story of the other character that’s as three-dimensional as he is. Olive is the film’s best written character (and Breslin joined Arkin as an Oscar-nominee). She is “normal” and “likeable,” but she also has personality and struggles. And while Olive is brought in and out of focus for much of the film’s run time, she is the star of its conclusion.
The film’s third act sees the family finally arriving at the beauty pageant. The pageant is of course easy fodder for satire. Some reviewers might view this satire as too little too late, but then the film is hit with a late, dramatic twist. While I can’t describe the twist without spoiling the movie, it is yet another good illustration of the film’s theme. The twist re-establishes the family as outsiders, but it finally does so in a way that is comedically and emotionally resonant. While I don’t know how self-aware Little Miss Sunshine is of its early limits, the ending serves as an effective rebuttal of those flaws. True comedy and true emotional resonance don’t come through canned lines and personas; they come through subversive acts of rebellion and solidarity.
There are many reasons one can like a movie. Sometimes stunning cinematography, sets and costumes are enough. Sometimes it is because the movie makes a unique point or a few solid jokes. In the case of Little Miss Sunshine, I assert that the film is memorable because its saves itself from itself. Its script is a lesson in both how to and how not to tell a story. That’s not a combination you’re going to come by too often.