Most comedy movies today rely heavily on shock value and gross-out humor to draw crowds and laughs. When it comes to visual media, subtle humor has found its recent home on television shows rather than the big screen. But Little Miss Sunshine treats and transcends the genre with nuance.
Little Miss Sunshine is both fresh and familiar. It tells the story of a white, suburban, dysfunctional family that carries with it the blood-is-thicker-than-water motif. However, it’s one of the darkest feel-good movies to come out the ‘00s. At the beginning of the movie, the cheery title is displayed over the defeated face of a suicidal gay man portrayed by Steve Carell. This contrast foreshadows a disconnect between the aesthetic and tone of the rest of the film. It’s hard to make southern California look dreary.
The plot centers around a road trip to Redondo Beach, California so that youngest daughter, Olive (Abigail Breslin), can compete in a beauty pageant. Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette portray goofy dad Richard and stay-at-home mom Sheryl. They are accompanied by Richard’s irreverent father, Edwin (Alan Arkin), Sheryl’s suicidal brother, Frank, and the couple’s son, Dwayne (Paul Dano).
Carrying a façade of optimism and self-confidence, Richard Hoover quickly becomes the most despised character of the story. As someone who feels deeply hopeless, he imposes his can-do attitude vicariously upon his children, even when it’s unhealthy or insulting. His nihilist son, Dwayne, has taken a vow of silence until he’s able to be an Air Force test pilot. Sheryl is concernedly unsupportive, and while Dwayne clearly couldn’t care less, Richard subtly credits himself as being the driving motivation for Dwayne’s determination.
The Volkswagen Bus they drive to the event is just as dysfunctional as the family, but it’s used as a unifier for the family early on in the film. Because the van breaks down, they can’t get it into gear unless it’s moving at least 20 mph. There’s something satisfying about seeing nihilist Dwayne and suicidal Frank being the last ones to jump in after pushing the van up to speed. They have no personal investment in the beauty pageant and are openly disgusted by it later in the film, but there’s something almost primal about supporting a family member that they seemingly can’t overcome.
When the cosmic mentor Edwin dies on the way, it seems like all hope is lost. But the family once again works together to sneak his body out of the hospital and into their trunk. The scene is endearing, dark, and hilarious all at the same time.
Probably the most touching scene is when Dwayne learns that he’s colorblind, meaning that he wouldn’t be able to fly. He breaks his vow of silence to scream obscenities in the middle of the desert. He names the individual dysfunctions of the family members out loud—suicide, divorce, etc.—and declares his hatred for them. While everyone wracks their brains trying to think of something to say to get him back in the van, Olive goes down to him and hugs him for just a moment in silence. Dwayne walks back up with Olive, picks her up when she gets stuck, and apologizes to his family. Richard’s job requires him to know the right words and the right formulas to get the right outcome. And maybe the best solution isn’t in words or actions, but in silence.
All of these ups and downs culminate to Olive’s borderline obscene dance number during the talent portion of the pageant. It’s sloppy and poorly choreographed, and she’s is nearly booted off the stage when Richard is asked to get her off the stage. Instead he joins her. Then the rest of the family joins her, and in one fell swoop the family subverts the image-obsessed pageant culture and their image-obsessed family culture. They embrace their dysfunction together.
The film ends with somewhat of a resurrection narrative as Richard opens the back door and rolls up the sheet that once hid his father’s body. It’s an atonement and ascension of sorts. They’ve laid to rest the facades and hopelessness.
This film follows all the beats of a feel-good family movie, but subverts the genre in over-the-top ridiculous ways. Perhaps the shock factor isn’t lost on this dark comedy after all.