For some reason I have a vague recollection of child beauty pageants being one of those meta-topics that come around from time-to-time around when Little Miss Sunshine came out in 2006. I cannot remember precisely, though, and such are the vagaries of memory. I thought perhaps it had to do with television shows like Toddlers & Tiaras, but apparently that premiered a few years after this film. If you have seen this movie, you might find the fact that they went ahead with a reality program about shoving kids into contests that judge them on their looks to be absurd as, well, Little Miss Sunshine. There are different kids of absurdity. In the film, it is the sort that points to particular thing, like child beauty pageants, and underscores its strangeness. As you will see, that is putting it nicely.
Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) sits before a television watching the Miss America contest. She hones in on the moment when the woman who comes in second gets the news, practicing the reaction her facial features. You see, Olive, despite looking slightly awkward as most kids do when they are roughly eight, is about to be qualified for the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. She has the determination instilled in her by her motivational speaker father, Richard (Greg Kinnear), and a confidence to be her own person as taught to her by her mother, Sheryl (Toni Collette). Grandpa (Alan Arkin) helps too, though as we will find out his drug fueled aid presents a, to put it mildly, less than wholesome result. Do not be misled, however, for he truly cares for his granddaughter. But as Rick James said once on Chappelle’s Show, “Cocaine is a helluva drug.” Rounding out the family is Dwayne (Paul Dano), the Nietzsche reading teenaged son who has taken a vow of silence until he achieves his goal of becoming a fighter pilot. Totally normal, right? The last addition the group is Sheryl’s brother Frank Ginsberg (Steve Carell). He is brought to the Hoover home after a failed suicide attempt when his gay paramour did not love him back, instead going for his rival to be the number one Proust scholar in the county, an affair which ended in Richard getting fired. So you can understand, somewhat, why he would be upset. When they all learn of Olive’s acceptance into the Little Miss Sunshine contest, the decision is made to pack everyone into the only vehicle capable of getting them all there: an ancient, yellow Volkswagen Microbus. So what do you get when you put a elderly cocaine addict, a silent boy who is clear about hating everyone, a suicidal gay scholar, a failing motivational speaker, a wife hiding a smoking habit, and a little girl who just wants to compete in a flawed contest together? Some rather inappropriate, but still funny, and surprisingly sweet moments. Incidentally, on the way to the contest, after Grandpa had completed working with Olive on her talent routine, he dies after one last bump in the hotel room half-way to their destination. Because they all want to get Olive to California where Little Miss Sunshine is held, they decide to forego all the red tape and paperwork involved in dealing with Grandpa’s death. In order to make their deadline, they furtively load his corpse into the back of the Microbus and take off down the road. When they finally arrive at the show, Richard’s normal unflappable confidence is shaken when he sees how serious are the other contestants. They give Olive the opportunity to back out, saying they will be proud of her either way. She goes ahead anyway, dedicating her talent on stage to her Grandpa. What proceeds defies belief, and it is humorous if shocking. Apparently Grandpa’s idea of “talent” came from viewing strippers and other pornographic material, for “Super Freak” by Rick James comes on, and Olive’s “dance” involves tearing clothes from her body. Now, understand that she is wearing kneepads and a one-piece bathing suit underneath, and most of her dance involves spinning around in circles. Still, the routine suggests an adult entertainer, and the judges are appalled. Yet when they try to forcefully remove Olive from the stage, the rest of family gets up there and wildly gesticulate with her. Ultimately, they all become closer for it, so that is something.
Between the homosexuality, purchasing of pornography (there is no actual shown nudity), drug use, attempted suicide, potential of a broken family, and beauty contests, you might think there is nothing in Little Miss Sunshine for a Catholic viewer. Did I mention that Dwayne wears a shirt that says “Jesus was wrong?” And no, I would not recommend this movie to most audiences. It is rated R, and for good reason. However, that does not mean that it lacks some worthwhile moments in it. As alluded to in the previous paragraph, each of the characters, outside of Olive, have their own problems that distract them at times, so much so that they leave Olive behind at a gas station on accident at one point on their trip. Having said that, it is Olive that brings them back together. Her innocence is evident throughout the film. You might say, wait, did she not essentially do a strip tease? Perhaps, but neither did she truly understand what she was doing. One day she might grow up, look back on her experience, and see how awful was that performance. But for the moment they were just pants and a shirt that easily tear away. Regardless, she touches each of her family members at some point. Perhaps the most interesting of these interactions is with her Uncle Richard. After Grandpa dies, she asks him whether or not there is a heaven. Being the academic that he is, but not a complete monster, he rather judiciously responds by saying that no one really knows for sure. Undeterred, she comes back with her belief in heaven and that her uncle will be there one day. Does this make a believer of Richard? Not really. However, it is exactly the kind of thing to say to a person struggling with his existence.
This brief discussion between Richard and Olive is one of the few times in Little Miss Sunshine where God is more directly discussed. In sum, it is an irreverent movie, to say the least. It is made watchable by moments like the one just mentioned. I also applaud it for scenes like when Dwayne discovers he is color blind and thus cannot become the fighter pilot he so rigorously desires to be. This leads to a meltdown and breaking his vow of silence, though initially to roundly curse out his family. Again, it is the gentle touch of Olive that brings him around, and in the background there is a sign that reads “United We Stand.” Nice touch. Yet it is Richard who relates perhaps the best message of the film. Though calm, Dwayne complains to his uncle how he wishes he could just skip being a teenager and be eighteen. Richard responds with an eloquent lesson about suffering and how it is an opportunity to become a better person. I could not help but think of times when I have been in spiritual direction, or other bits from my faith journey, where I have complained about my trials and tribulations only to be reminded of the blessings in all of them. God uses everything for His Glory and your benefit. Yes, it stinks to go through loss. There is nothing that can prevent that from happening. But the perspective to be gained from a heartbreak, or being driven out of a beauty pageant, is invaluable, particularly when you view it through the lens of Faith.
If you can handle the foul language and other inappropriate aspects of Little Miss Sunshine, then know there are good parts of it making it worth watching. But I can understand if you did not want to see it. Maybe I am still on my Paddington high, but when you see a movie that does pretty much exactly what Little Miss Sunshine does without resorting to scandal, then you wonder why Hollywood cannot do that more often. Why do we need to wade through a bunch of garbage to get to the important stuff? Still, as long as you are showing it to adults, there is nothing too salacious about it other than what has been discussed.