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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #402: Little Miss Sunshine

With the success of the show “Toddlers and Tiaras” I now have even more appreciation for the 2006 film “Little Miss Sunshine.” It follows a dysfunctional family travelling from New Mexico to California so that their seven-year-old daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) can participate in a beauty pageant. My favourite scene is when Uncle Frank (Steve Carell) and older brother Dwayne (Paul Dano) step into the pageant hall. You can actually count up to seven seconds before the two of them walk out of that room. They’re not saying it, but you can tell they’re thinking it: “this is wrong and we can’t let them do this to Olive.”

A major success at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, “Little Miss Sunshine” had a lot of good buzz by the time it expanded to major theatres late in the summer. At that time I was just beginning to learn about different film festivals so having read the good reviews, I was curious to see the movie. I saw it while living at Sherbrooke University, at a theatre that showed both independent and big budget movies. It was great seeing with an audience, but I wish I had actually been at Sundance just to hear people’s reaction to Olive’s dance and see which company was going to buy the distribution rights. I should probably add that to my bucket list: attend Sundance Film Festival.

Before the movie gets into gear, we meet the cast, the Hoover family. Sheryl (Toni Colette) is the mother whose job, like most mothers, is to keep the family together. Her husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker/life coach, who has yet to hit it big with his business, if you can call what he does a business. Their older son Dwayne has taken a vow of silence and dreams of becoming an air-force pilot, probably so he can fly away from his family. Even more depressing is Sheryl’s brother Frank, who moves in after a failed suicide attempt.

The happiest person in the family is Olive, who dreams of becoming a beauty queen. Her trainer is her grandpa Edwin (Alan Arkin), a foul-mouthed World War II veteran who has a taste for pornography and heroin. His reasoning is you would have to be crazy to do drugs when you’re young, but you would have to be crazy not to do them when you’re old. I’ve been to the geriatric ward at a hospital, and I wonder if he has a point. Either way, Edwin’s training is about to be put to the test when Sheryl gets a call telling her Olive has qualified for the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest in Redondo Beach, California.

Unfortunately the contest is in two days, so their last minute plan is to pack the whole Hoover clan in their yellow Volkswagen T2 Microbus. Their bus is almost a character on its own, with its little quirks. When it breaks down, a surprising helpful garage employee tells them a cheap solution would be to push the bus to a certain speed and then hit the gas. Later the horn gets jammed, which can attract a lot of unwanted attention when driving on the highway.

Along the way the family runs into various obstacles that are more emotional than physical. Richard realises his plan for his motivational speaking business may go up in smoke. Frank, whose mood slowly improves, runs into the reason for his suicide attempt. Even Dwayne, who limits his conversation to scribbled notes, reaches a boiling point when he realizes he dream of joining the air force may never take off.

Yet this is still a comedy, and a pretty uplifting one. Despite all of their problems, this family sticks together so that Olive can make it to that contest. Once they do, you realize Olive doesn’t fit in with the rest of the contestants. Whereas Olive is a little but pudgy, all of the contestants are thin, covered in make-up, with shaved legs and sprayed tans. By these standards, she seems way out of their leagues, but when her music starts and she shows what Edwin taught her…my jaw dropped.

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valeris Faris show us characters that are not winning in life, but they are trying to make the best of it and that should count for something. Screenwriter Michael Arndt said he was inspired by a quote from then governor Arnold Schwarzenegger who told a group of high school students how he despises losers. With their crumbling business ideas, failed dreams, and unconventional looks, the Hoovers may not live up to the standards of “winners,” but that’s not going to stop them, or their yellow bus. 


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