‘Everyone just pretend to be normal’. These words, yelled by Richard Hoover as his family’s road trip veers from one disaster to another, are the essence of this 2006 road movie. For ‘normal’ is not a word one would associate with this dysfunctional American household, but then, what is a normal family? Really a writer’s movie, with the wonderful script by Michael Arndt powerfully executed by Faris and Dayton, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE takes us on a bittersweet trip that is humbly life-affirming.
… the American Dream, […] what the Hoover family are pursuing, and what is eluding them.
The film opens with a young girl, Olive, mimicking the winner of Miss America as she takes her crown. An instant mockery of the American Dream, of what the Hoover family are pursuing, and what is eluding them. The father (Greg Kinnear) awaits the success of his nine-step programme on how to become a ‘winner’, and yet is a loser in denial, endlessly peddling a defunct scheme. Toni Collette is his frustrated wife, and also the grieving sister of Steve Carell’s suicidal homosexual. He shares a room with his teenage nephew Dwayne (Paul Dano), an impassive aspiring pilot who takes a vow of silence until he achieves that goal. He is the polar-opposite to his heroin-snorting grandfather, whose only occupation besides a drug habit is coaching Olive in her beauty-pageant dance routine. So there we have it: a bunch of intensely dysfunctional individuals. All that’s left is to pack them off to the ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ beauty pageant contest in a misleadingly merry yellow VW, and the real journey begins.
Everything about this film just works.
Everything about this film just works. Perhaps it’s the score, written and performed by DeVotchKa, that perfectly encapsulates the low-key melancholy tone of the film. We watch frustrations and sorrows bubble to the surface inside the claustrophobic VW, as the ludicrous catastrophes that ensue over the journey simultaneously unite the family and pull them apart. Each member of the wonderfully cast Hoover family is restless and directionless, quietly shell-shocked by the emptiness of the dream they thought could be realised.
There are so many great moments. Richard’s lecture to Olive over the dangers of eating ice-cream, the policeman’s distraction from a dead body in the boot by a pornography magazine, Dwayne’s heart-wrenching howl of ‘fuuuuuuuuck’ as his ambition is proved futile. The dance routine at the end is an unforgettable climax, as Olive reveals exactly what dance Grandpa has choreographed and the Hoover family finally come together in an entertaining, moving conclusion. This black comedy does exactly what a road movie is supposed to do: take us on a journey far beyond the literal sense.