Review: Little Miss Sunshine

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By Jo Withers

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Rated – M

Content Warnings – Suicide, unexpected death, sex and drug references.

Little Miss Sunshine is a darkly comic movie which was first released in 2006 as the directorial debut of husband-and-wife team Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton. It has been chosen as the 2021 Mental Health Month movie due to its relevance to this year’s theme, ‘We All Have a Role to Play’. 

From the first scenes of Little Miss Sunshine, the outlook is anything but sunny. The show opens with Toni Collette’s character Sheryl Hoover collecting her brother Frank (Steve Carell) from the hospital following his attempted suicide. There is a matter-of-factness about this errand which is simultaneously heart-warming and confronting. There is no heightened drama, no blame or histrionics, Sheryl simply hugs her brother and tells him she’s glad his attempt failed. To which he replies, ‘That makes one of us.’ 

This candid tone peppered with dark, self-depreciating comedy underpins the entire performance. Frank is discharged from hospital and taken to the Hoover family home where he becomes one of the many tasks Sheryl is balancing. She makes a bed up for Frank in the room of her teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano) who looks instantly repelled by the situation but can’t fully protest as he’s taken a vow of silence and hasn’t spoken in months. 

The rest of the Hoover family are introduced at dinner. Dad is Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear) a narrow-minded entrepreneur who is obsessed with success. He is appalled at being forced to share a table with Frank who is clearly failing horribly at everything. The final mal-adjusted adult is Grandpa (Alan Arkin). Grandpa has been excluded from his nursing home following a heroin binge and is now bizarrely coaching the youngest Hoover, Olive (Abigail Breslin) in the art of beauty pageant competitions as it is her ultimate goal to win a crown.

The dynamics of the dysfunctional family peak and pivot during the meal. Frank sits in solemn contemplation with his bandaged wrists, Dwayne communicates using a notepad that he hates everybody, Grandpa screams that he can’t stomach ‘goddamned fucking chicken’ every night, Olive interrogates Frank on the reasons behind his suicide and Sheryl robotically tries to keep up some semblance of normality. Then the phone rings.

The family are told that Olive has secured a place in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant which takes place days later in California. Following threats and bribes from Sheryl, the whole family agree to go on a road trip in their old VW bus to support Olive’s beauty queen dream. And that’s where the fun really starts, as the broken-down family take their clapped-out bus on the road trip from hell.

What follows is a journey of simmering resentments, acute disappointments, and life-changing loss. The bus breaks down at the first stop and will now only start on top of a hill meaning every time they want to move forward, the whole family has to put their differences aside, push the bus to the top of a hill and then run to catch their ride – a most effective extended metaphor for pulling together in times of adversity.

Despite their occasional attempts to work as a team, the remainder of their journey is intensely harrowing. One of the best things about this movie is the things it doesn’t do. It doesn’t insult the audience by attempting to find tidy resolutions for the complex characters, it doesn’t over-sentimentalise the tender moments, it doesn’t tie everything up in a neat bow at the end or suggest that all the characters’ problems have been solved. On the contrary, the plot is depressing, alarming and realistic – sometimes life does keep dealing out lemon after lemon and doesn’t stop.

This movie is not about making lemonade, it’s not about silver linings or finding inner peace. It’s about people, people making connections, people realising that others feel the same despair.

In the closing scenes of the movie, Frank and Dwayne have formed an unlikely bond, they philosophise on the demands of life and summarise that everything from birth to death is one long beauty pageant – one long party for the elite and privileged, one long struggle to be best dressed. Dwayne comments that he wishes he could go to sleep and wake up when he’s eighteen and the pressures of high school are over. Frank succinctly argues that it is the periods of absolute suffering that make us wiser – that without intense hardship we cannot truly grow. He urges Dwayne to embrace his future suffering – a powerful shift in mindset from a man who attempted suicide only days before.

At the end of the movie, nothing has gone right, no glorious stroke of luck has shone upon these deserving characters and given them the break they need. The only thing that has changed is the connection they have made to one another.

Little Miss Sunshine is a poignant, uplifting movie which never cheapens its message for easy laughs or sugarcoats the characters’ despair. The movie is thought provoking and insightful and fully supports the message that talking to one another can ease our mental burden. As in life there is no guaranteed happy ending, only the promise that the journey is warmer and infinitely more bearable when it is shared.

 

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