Little Miss Sunshine is the story of a lower middle class, dysfunctional family from Albuquerque, New Mexico. When they get a call confirming their 7 year old daughter’s slot in a child’s beauty pageant in California, they pack up their yellow VW van with the whole family. Keeping a family with members as volatile and antithetical to one another in the same vehicle from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach ensures conflict, but it also provides the environment for resolution, understanding, and connection.
Each character is faced with certain overwhelming expectations whether put upon them by an outside force or by themselves. The mother, Sheryl, is held to the typical role of protector and caregiver, trying desperately to maintain some form of sanity in her household. The father, Richard, is working to launch his 9-step self-help system but the process is becoming stagnant. Frank, Sheryl’s brother, has been brought to live with the family after his attempted suicide following an unsuccessful relationship with one of his graduate students and being passed over for recognition as the world’s leading Proust scholar. Dwayne, the seventeen year old son, has taken a vow of silence until he becomes a jet plane pilot. Ed, the cantankerous grandfather, has come to live with his son after being kicked out of his nursing home for snorting heroin. And then there is Olive, the precious young girl who idolizes the beauty queens of Miss America and spends so much of her time studying tapes of pageants as she perfects her routine, wanting to be just like them.
In the beginning of the film, a very tense KFC dinner reveals a disconnect between every member of the family. Each person is so focused on their individual struggles/path, and insists on vocalizing them that any communication is one sided. Each understands what the other is doing or attempting to do, but none of them understand why and they make no attempt to. Except Olive. Olive listens attentively to each speaker and engages in conversation with them, asking questions, making comments, trying to understand the motivation behind each action. She is the anchor to which the rest of the family is tied to and through her they are able to interact with each other tenderly.
As the trip to California goes on, each character experiences a confirmation of their failure, but they trudge on even through the greatest tragedy (Ed’s death). With each misfortune, the family grows closer. The hurting party is surrounded by words and actions of encouragement and kindness. No longer is the pressure of attaining their goals pushing them apart. They all begin to realize that adhering to expectation should never be the driving force behind one’s actions. Dwayne articulates what should be beautifully when he says to his uncle, “Do what you love, and fuck the rest.” Passion should be the fire that fuels you, and support from those around you keeps that fire burning. Each character is able to move past their disappointments with the support of the family and the knowledge that they are valuable, talented, intelligent, helpful, and beautiful despite the antagonism and discouragement of society.
No one can make it on their own. A support system, no matter how unorthodox or dysfunctional, is essential to any and all forms of success.