“You know what? Fuck beauty pageants. Life is one beauty pageant after another. School, then college, then work… Fuck that.”
(Cover image taken from the trailer.)
I was 15 when Little Miss Sunshine was released in 2006. My family and I went to see it in theaters, and we liked it enough to buy the DVD. It was one of the few “artsy” movies that I liked at that age. For the most part, I was happy to watch silly comedies and dumb action movies; Little Miss Sunshine is neither, and yet I watched it consistently and enjoyed it, although I could hardly say why. I’ve had the pleasure to encounter the film again (we played it in English class the week before spring break), and realized, upon re-watching it, that Little Miss Sunshine is a far deeper movie that I could have guessed.
The premise is simple: An adorable girl, Olive (Abigail Breslin), wins a local beauty contest (she was runner-up, but the first-place winner was disqualified for taking diet pills), which qualifies her to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pangent—her dream come true.
Meanwhile, Olive’s family is in disarray. Her grandfather (Alan Arkin), who coaches her, is a heroine addict who’s been kicked out of his nursing home. Her father, Richard (Greg Kinnear), is trying to market his nine-step program for turning “losers” into “winners”. Her mother, Sheryl (Toni Collette), is the only person who has a job, and she works desperately to support the family while she gradually loses patience with her husband’s scheme. Olive’s older brother, Dwayne (Paul Dano), is a moody adolescent who has taken a vow of silence until he goes to the Air Force Academy. And Olive’s uncle, Frank (Steve Carrell), was a leading Proust scholar until he was fired for inappropriate behavior; the film opens with him sitting in a hospital room, after he tried to kill himself.
The task is simple: get Olive to California to compete in the pageant. But circumstances come together—Richard isn’t working so they’re short of money, Grandpa is Olive’s coach so he has to go, Sheryl can’t drive a stick shift, Frank can’t be left by himself since he is suicidal, Dwayne is only fifteen so he can’t stay home alone either—which force the family to pile in an old Volkswagen bus, all together, mostly against their will, to drive all the way there. Thus the adventure begins, a classic road trip movie.
On the surface, there is much to commend the movie. The acting is generally excellent, especially Toni Collette’s performance as the harried and impatient mother. The long shots of the Volkswagen bus driving through the country’s innards are pure Americana. There are some great comedic moments (Alan Arkin is responsible for most of them, even when he’s dead). I especially love DeVotchka’s soundtrack to the movie—at times kitch, at times bubbly, and tender when it needs to me, with a hypnotic preponderance of the root chord to the mediant, an extremely weak harmonic contrast that sounds like a bittersweet sigh.
What I realize now is how thematically tight this movie is, despite the superficially meandering narrative. Little Miss Sunshine is, at bottom, an exploration of what it means to be a winner and a loser. Those two words come up again and again in the movie, in large part thanks to Richard’s nine-step program; and each character interacts with these two poles of success in different ways.
Specifically, each character is defined by what they value in life, what it means to be a “winner” (and, consequently, a “loser”). For Olive, it means winning the beauty pageant; for Dwayne, flight school; for Richard, getting a publishing deal; for grandpa, hedonistic pleasure; for Sheryl, having a normal, happy family; and for Frank, academic prestige. And during the course of the movie, each one of them has to confront the implosion of their dream. Olive is no beauty queen, Dwayne is color-blind, Richard doesn’t get his deal, Sheryl faces the prospect of divorce, grandpa’s hedonism gets himself killed, and Frank witnesses his rival lauded and himself forgotten.
All of them, in other words, face becoming that most dreaded of words, a “loser.” They all have to confront life stripped of their definition of success. This is terrifying, because it means giving up their definition of themselves. Who is Dwayne without flight school? Who is Frank without his professorship? A nobody? A loser?
All of the characters face this moment, a moment of despair, when their dreams are stripped from them. They face this moment of having their own sense of themselves collapse, and their first reaction is to categorize themselves as a failure. Frank is the most extreme case of this, having attempted suicide, but to a greater or lesser extent this happens to everyone, even Olive, who cries in the hotel the night before the pageant because she’s afraid that if she loses her father won’t love her.
This question—”What does it mean to be a loser?”—is brought up explicitly several times. Grandpa says that a loser is “someone who’s so afraid of losing he doesn’t even try.” Richard says that the difference between winners and losers is that “losers don’t give up.” Frank says that Proust was a “total loser,” and yet points out that Proust’s suffering helped him write. Yet all of these are, at best, partial answers. The film’s final message is this: A loser is somebody who cares whether people think he’s a loser.
This is why the film’s climax, when the family gets up and dances to Rick James’s “Superfreak,” is so joyfully cathartic. For it is at that moment when each character finally stops caring about seeming successful, normal, smart, beautiful, cool, or anything else; they stop caring about what the audience thinks. They can be seen as losers and still be happy, which is exactly what it means to be a winner.
Perhaps the most nefarious part of the fear of being seen as a “loser” is that is separates us from one another. All notions of winner and loser require some sort of evaluative framework—how we’re determining success. Each one of these frameworks creates a pecking order, people who are higher up or lower down the hierarchy, and it naturally creates a lot of anxiety around losing status. What’s more, as we can see from just this family, the world is full of many different conflicting value frameworks: academia, business, family, the military, hedonistic pleasure. Even if we’re a winner in one world we’re inevitably a loser in many other worlds. And since we’re inevitably a loser, we will be avoided and shunned by people anxious to lose status in their world.
Giving up your fear of being seen as a loser allows people to engage one another as equals, without status anxiety, without either deference or scorn. In other words, you need to give up this idea of being a loser to have simple, healthy relationships with others.
This notion is symbolized in the movie’s Volkswagen bus. Not long into their voyage, the transmission breaks. From then on, to get it started, everyone is needed: the van doesn’t move unless the whole family is pushing together. Later on, the horn breaks too, constantly producing a squawking wail, drawing every passerby’s attention to the van.
In the same way, the family begins as a fractured group of people concerned with winning and losing. Eventually, each of them realize that their little value systems are silly, and they can connect with each other simply as people. (Frank ironically notes that he’s the “pre-eminent Proust scholar in the US” every time they push the van, underscoring how totally irrelevant his old value-system is.) Soon enough, they discard their old notions of winning and losing so completely that they can be publically goofy, as symbolized by the car’s persistent horn. (I’m not normally a fan of symbolic analysis like this, but it seems very obvious in this case.)
All this brings me, inevitably, to Donald Trump. “Winner” and “loser” are two of the president’s favorite words. Calling someone a loser is, for him, the ultimate insult. In Donald’s world, to win is to have value, to lose to be worthless. This mentality is perfectly demonstrated by Trump’s previous ownership of the Miss USA and Miss Universe beauty pageants. These pageants are such painfully obvious demonstrations of the way we gleefully use superficial standards to rank one another that they didn’t need someone like Trump to discredit them. The beauty pageant becomes one of the dominant symbols of this film, the archetype of every evaluative framework. And the point of the film is that it is far better to get yourself banned from beauty contests than to win them.
So it strikes me, now, that Little Miss Sunshine has only grown more relevant since its release. It both anticipates, analyzes, and rejects the entire worldview of the current president, showing how the beauty pageant, winner/loser view of life just leads to isolation and despair. And to help fight this sort of thinking, it seems we all need to get over our fear of being losers, limber up, let loose, and dance like a bunch of wild fools in public.