“Think of all the suffering you’re going to miss.”
Picture this- it’s 2006 and you’re standing in the aisles of your local Blockbuster. Your parents are searching through dramas, but you’ve been banished to the “Family” aisle. Bored by the options, you turn your attention to the preview playing on the small, dented television above the register. “Little Miss Sunshine” appears in big letters on the screen.
You see a van, a family laughing, and a little girl that looks a little bit like you. You run to your parents, pointing at the screen and asking them if you can rent that one. They watch the screen and find the film in the rows of DVD cases. Your mom reads, “Little Miss Sunshine… rated R, sorry sweetie!” She then decides to rent it for herself to watch without you. Devastated, you beg for permission to watch it before it needs to be returned. However, it’s a no every time. Eventually, you let it go, but you never really forget about it. Eventually, you get older, R-rated movie age, and realize you can watch this movie.
So, you do.
A Long Awaited Viewing
Little Miss Sunshine came out in the summer of 2006, and I wasn’t allowed to watch it. I was 7, just like protagonist Olive, which made me even angrier at my parents. If she could be in it, why couldn’t I watch it? I suppose now I understand why- there’s cursing, drugs, death, etc. Things I wouldn’t have understood in a way that would’ve mattered enough to justify my watching it then. That all being said- I felt self-conscious about my body when I was 7. I think that if my 7-year-old ears heard Miss California tell Olive that she loves ice cream, specifically Cherry Garcia, that would have resonated with me in a way that mattered. There would have been a moment, just a moment, where I felt seen. I know that’s true because I felt it when I watched it today, in my 20’s.
Little Miss Sunshine focuses on a family of beautifully cast misfits looking for meaning and purpose in everyday life. They all have baggage, some heavier than others, and they all need to figure out how to make it work. The story centers around their journey to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, where young Olive seeks to win the crown and fulfill her dream of being a beauty queen. Her harsh and corporate-minded father, overworked mother, brooding brother, doting grandfather, and recent hospital release uncle all band together to get her to where she needs to be, no matter what it takes. Pushing a broken-down VW van through the desert, discussing the trauma that is living life, and getting on stage to support the little girl that still carries hope in her heart bring them together in ways they never expected, and it takes the audience right along with them.
The Beauty Pageant of Girlhood
There are many memorable moments in this film. In one scene, we see Olive and company eating at a diner together before getting back on the road. While looking at the menus Olive asks her mother Sheryl Hoover (Toni Collette) what she can get. “Anything under $4” is what Mrs. Hoover tells her. Olive goes with the waffles that come with ice cream on top. Her mother immediately asks her if she’s sure she wants to have that for breakfast. Olive confirms, and the order gets placed.
After a moment of idle chit-chat, her father Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear) speaks up. “Can I tell you a little something about ice cream? Well, ice cream is made from cream, which comes from cow’s milk and cream has a lot of fat in it.” Sheryl tries to cut him off but he tells her that Olive is going to find out the truth anyway. “When you eat ice cream the fat in the ice cream becomes fat in your body. So if you eat a lot of ice cream you might become fat and if you don’t you’re going to stay nice and skinny sweetie!” It is clear that his words weigh heavier on Olive than any amount of fat ice cream could cause her to gain.
Maybe this sounds silly but, how many times I have sat at the table like Olive does in that diner with my parents reminding me to mind myself, because I wouldn’t want to “get fat”, exist in enormity compared to the times I felt like Olive in that ice cream validation moment. There was nothing I, as a young girl in the early 2000s, wanted more than to be like the flat-stomached models I saw each day on the cover of magazines. I watched ads for Weight Watchers between episodes of The Biggest Loser. I knew Jenny Craig before I knew the names of all the presidents.
The diet culture that rotted my brain as a young girl, striving for the unattainable in any way I could, is just one of the complex issues put on full display slowly but surely throughout this film. Adorned with the suffering of a family joined by nothing other than commitment, this story brings to light the strains that the world places on the shoulders of everyday people in a way that feels nothing short of familiar.
You Can’t Fly Jets if You’re Colorblind
Brother Dwayne Hoover (Paul Dano) is a brooding, emo, teenager with a dream. He wants to fly jets more than anything in the world. So, he has taken an angsty vow of silence until he can go to flight school. Nietzsche is an implied inspiration. Throughout the film, Dwayne does not speak at all. He really commits to the bit, and communicates only via writing to his family and those around him.
The audience doesn’t get to know much about Dwayne until the tail end of the film. It is revealed through an eye test he does in the backseat of the van with Uncle Frank (Steve Carell) that Dwayne is colorblind. After this revelation, Frank informs Dwayne that you can’t fly jets if you’re colorblind. Dwayne begins thrashing in the back of the van, silently. After his father pulls over he throws himself from the van and runs down a hill off the highway. It is there that we finally hear his voice. Dwayne wails in agony, screaming a single profanity and sobbing violently. The audience feels his pain as he finds out the only thing he has ever wanted is out of his reach, to no fault of his own. The uncontrollable nature of life has robbed him of something, and there is nothing he can do but mourn.
A Sunshine Story That Means Something
Little Miss Sunshine means a lot in a way that is so mundane. We have all had our, “you can’t fly jets if you’re colorblind” moment, and if you haven’t- you will (sorry). The relatability of the suffering in the film makes it that much better to watch. Suffering may not sound like something that would make a movie better to watch. However, in this case, it serves as a vehicle into the character’s minds. The suffering these characters endure is so normal, really, and it does make a viewer see that their suffering has made them who they are in the brief hour and 45 minutes we came to know them in. Olive has a childish consumption of this suffering, but visible registration that it exists. It is a great depiction of innocence, and how it does what it can to remain content in the world.
The world is good despite its flaws in the eyes of an innocent beholder. Even when the bad is right there to see. At the end of the day, the movie is a story about a family. A family that is experiencing suffering. Whether that means they are absorbing it or not, they are experiencing it. But they’re trying to experience it in the name of getting to something that matters- Little Miss Sunshine. They bear their suffering and carry it onto a little VW bus to make sure Olive has the opportunity to secure the win. A win they all want, but by the end realize they can’t really have. Their love for her despite their situations unifies them in a disjointed way, but it is certainly in a way that matters.