Little Miss Sunshine: Dysfunctional families on the screen – Jacob Bernard-Banton

Jacob Bernard-Banton is a third year English Literature student at The University of Manchester as well as being a full-time film writer with Sonder.

Little Miss Sunshine: Dysfunctional families on the screen.

I confess. I was charmed by Little Miss Sunshine (2006). It was a complete and utter joy: Michael Arndt’s witty screenplay sparkled and fizzed with funny, memorable lines; husband-and-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris commanded an excellent ensemble cast and handled the warm, affectionate story with aplomb; the acting was superb, featuring an Oscar-winning turn from Alan Arkin. But, in retrospect, something about it perturbs me a little.

It isn’t the arguably ambivalent portrayal of grotesque child beauty pageants—the film neither glamorises nor condemns the hollow and profoundly creepy phenomenon—that irks me. Nor is it the unashamedly folksy alt-rock soundtrack, made as though to assuage a particular sort of indie fan and signpost the film’s unmistakable independent cinema credentials, that grates. Instead, it is the depiction of a markedly dysfunctional and quirky family that slightly annoys me. The film asks the audience to believe that a collection of emphatically awkward, wacky people constitute a family unit.

There’s Richard Hoover, the down-on-his-luck, deluded life-coach and wannabe motivational speaker, a distant relative of the travelling-salesman father trope—had Little Miss Sunshine been set around the late 1940s or early 1950s, Richard would have been renamed Willy Loman. Richard’s wife, Sheryl, is the archetypal long-suffering mother on a low income. Their children are the misanthropic Dwayne, Sheryl’s son from a previous marriage, who has undertaken a vow of silence until he gets into the US Air Force Academy; and the chubby, optimistic Olive, whose entry into the eponymous beauty pageant of the film’s title spurs the family’s testing road trip. Joining them are Sheryl’s suicidal, gay brother Frank, a Proust scholar, and Edwin, Richard’s smutty, irascible father, recently ejected from his retirement home for snorting heroin.

Admittedly, the film makes the point that this isn’t the (stereo)typical nuclear family: this is not – repeat, not – the husband/wife/“2.3 children” dynamic that makes up the ballast of families represented in cinema. But even the most patently dysfunctional families aren’t nearly as quirky as the Hoovers.

The Hoovers are a vibrant mix of strange, frustrated individuals. They’re perfect candidates for cinematic character study, if not exactly plausible, realistic characters. Indeed, much of Little Miss Sunshine is a trifle bit contrived. The problems they encounter with their battered Volkswagen T2 Microbus are convenient plot devices. Dwayne’s outburst after discovering he is colour blind seems less geared towards character insight than providing a cathartic moment to push home the subtext that, as fractured and idiosyncratic the family are, they’re still family: it is a subtext that rings hollow, redolent of mawkish, family-friendly Hollywood movie-making. Even Edwin’s death allows for the family to wallow in grief before coming together as a family to shift his corpse into the back of their van. The closing scenes wherein the family collectively disrupt the beauty pageant and receive a scolding from the pageant’s organisers—which seek to very unsubtly emphasise their quirky nonconformist presence in conservative Middle America—precede the final footnote that sees the family all smiling homeward bound in their van, having resolved their personal crises and struggles, brought closer together by their shared suffering and outsider quirkiness. It would be churlish to find fault with such a triumphant ending, yet the film does lay it on a bit thick.

The film is at great pains to make the family as zany and endearing as possible without sketching out greater characterisation: the quirky underdogs that demand our unconditional love. Compared to the family quirks of the Grant family in Alexander Payne’s masterly Nebraska (2013), the Hoovers look like a zany, Day-Glo nightmare. Rendered in sharp black-and-white, Nebraska is a more naturalistic film with a more naturalistic depiction of familial quirks.

It too, like Little Miss Sunshine, is a road movie. It follows senile protagonist Woody Grant’s journey to collect his $1 million worth of sweepstakes prize money he has alleged won, oblivious to the fact that is a cruel scam; his son, David, reluctantly drives all the way Nebraska so that Woody may collect his money, dropping by to visit other family members. One scene, an exquisite tableau, centred on assorted male members of the extended Grant family illustrates the rich seam of subdued comedy running through the film and underscores the quirkiness of the family’s mannerisms. One of the many brothers in the Grant family inquires to another about the condition of his old car, a ’79 Buick – as he remembers it, “those were good cars…they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” “Those cars will run forever,” he affirms. “Whatever happened to it?” he asks his brother. “Stopped running,” comes the reply. The first brother nods slightly before uttering the immortally funny line: “Yeah, they’ll do that.”

The Grant family is presented as somnolent, worn-down and listless as the small-town they still live in; their familial quirks exhibited in their gentle musings on the minutiae of daily life. David’s elderly mother frequently mentions the handful of men who “wanted in [her] pants” during her youth. David’s cousins, Cole and Bart (the former engaged in community service after his sexual assault charges), at one point, poke fun at him for taking such a long time commuting from Billings, Montana to Hawthorne, Nebraska. On paper, it doesn’t sound as rewarding as it is to watch on screen, especially since, just when you think the cousins’ mockery has ended, they explode into a non-sequential fit of hysterics. On the face of it, the Grants are pretty nondescript, undemanding folk, ungarnished with quirky affectations like Dwayne’s love of Nietzsche or Edwin’s decision to soundtrack Olive’s choreographed performance at the pageant with Rick James’ “Super Freak”.

Despite this though it is the genuine detail of their characterisation and their more nuanced quirks that shines through, making them more just one-dimensional quirky character traits assembled into a person-shaped entity.

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