This Sundance smash mixes up family comedy with the kind of heft and heartbreak (and obscenity) independent films have become famous for.
Co-director Jonathan Dayton jokes that Little Miss Sunshine is a "thinking man's National Lampoon's Vacation." I'll spend most of this review attempting to explain what he means by thinking. To start off with, it means dealing with some pretty heavy material.
The film gets rolling with footage of a trying-to-hold-the-family-together mom retrieving her brother from the hospital after he attempts suicide over losing his job and his gay lover. When Sheryl gets home with the still-depressed Frank in tow, we learn that Dwayne, her teenage son, has taken a vow of silence, refusing to speak to anyone until he's a fighter pilot. We also learn that her father-in-law gets high on heroin and can't get enough of hard-core pornography. Hubby Richard is fighting a losing battle with his career (which involves teaching people how to win). And Olive, her sweet, overweight, 7-year-old does nothing but pretend to be a beauty queen.
At this point, while watching, I was trying to figure out how National Lampoon's factors into a story that's ostensibly too depressing to be funny. But, as it turns out, it's at that intersection of desperation and farce that Little Miss Sunshine, um, shines—in a seriously tarnished metal sort of way.
Then Olive gets an unexpected call inviting her to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in California. The Hoovers grudgingly agree to drive her there (from Albuquerque). And it turns out to be the trip of a lifetime for all of them.
Annoyingly (and somewhat predictably), it's the most depraved character who doles out the most nuggets of wisdom. Grandpa steadfastly communicates to Olive that she is beautiful inside and out, especially when she's concerned that she might be ugly and fat. He also teaches her that "a real loser is somebody who is so afraid of not winning they don't even try." When Richard's entrepreneurial venture begins to crumble, it's Grandpa who showers him with compliments for giving it a good try—something he claims not many people bother doing.
But it's not really the verbal lessons that make the most impact here. It's the subtle stuff that's woven more deeply into the interplay. Olive is pretty much the only family member who doesn't change as the wheels of their aging VW microbus go round and round. But, then, she's pretty much the only one who doesn't need to change. Frank gradually pulls out of his suicidal funk as he begins to care less about himself and more about the people around him. In numerous little ways the nihilism- and Nietzsche-loving Dwayne betrays his stated hatred for "everyone!" and comes through for his little sister in a big way when it really matters. (He also apologizes soon after screaming obscenities at his mom.) Dad figures out that he needs to loosen up on his overly ambitious commitment to winning. And Mom is forced to grapple with her habit of worrying too much.
Those elements make selflessness the main positive point in Little Miss Sunshine. And it's made clear that for a family to function, members have to figure out how to display it.
Dwayne wears a T-shirt that screams, "Jesus Was Wrong." In a time of crisis, Mom prepares the kids for the worst by telling them that if God wants something to happen, they'll have to be OK with that. Olive asks Frank if he thinks there's a heaven. He says he doesn't know, to which Olive counters that she's sure there is, and that she's sure he'll go there.
In a frustratingly long and depressingly vulgar scene, Grandpa drills into Dwayne the "importance" of sleeping (and that's not his term for it) with "lots" of women, especially while he is still a teenager. [Spoiler Warning] It turns out that Grandpa also teaches Olive how to perform a strip tease. And she proceeds to do so for the talent portion of the pageant. She doesn't take off anything that exposes "skin," but she does mimic a series of sexually oriented moves, ripping off her costume hat, pants and jacket in the process.
The scene is maddening. I was furious with her grandfather for splashing sleaze all over her innocent 7-year-old spirit. And pulling myself out of the story, I was furious with the movie's makers for using such a young girl for such a purpose—and with her parents for letting her do it. The sight is intended to tweak children's beauty pageants which often objectify and adultify girls, but it left me actually sympathizing with the snootily horrified stage moms, not the Hoover family, which unanimously defends Olive's "moves."
Grandpa is obsessed with sex and porn. He makes several obscene remarks about his own sexual activities, and he asks Frank to buy him some "really filthy" pornography at a convenience store. Frank does so. (We see the cover of one magazine up close.). And he also buys himself a gay-themed "fag rag." Later, when Richard is pulled over by a police officer, the officer finds the magazines and drools over them. "I love this stuff, God bless ya," he says, and in the end he takes them as a bribe of sorts for letting the family go on its way. (The camera again takes a look at some of the nearly nude models; this time it lingers.)
Frustrated and angry, Dwayne loses control and punches at the windows, seats and ceiling of the van. Sticking up for his daughter, Richard physically grapples with the pageant's emcee, who tries to get Olive to stop her routine. Richard also crashes the van through parking lot barriers.
Frank's suicide attempt is not witnessed, but the subject is discussed when Olive expresses concern over the bandages on his wrists.
Crude or Profane Language
Thirty-plus f-words (some spoken by a teen and used sexually). A handful of s-words. God's name is abused a dozen times. Jesus' four times. Milder profanities include "d--n," "a--" and "h---."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Grandpa is twice observed snorting heroin. A conversation related to his drug abuse illuminates his twisted thinking: It's OK for him to use the potentially lethal substance because he's old and close to death, anyway. But it's not OK for Dwayne to indulge, because he's still young. Sheryl smokes cigarettes, but it's implied that Richard has been urging her to quit.
Other Negative Elements
Dad gets lost along the way to trying to convince Olive she shouldn't eat so much ice cream because it'll make her fatter. [Spoiler Warning] When one of the family members dies, the rest of the clan smuggle the body out of the hospital and deposit it in the back of the van Weekend At Bernie's-style so as not to be late to the pageant.
Just because Dwayne begins to care about his family doesn't mean he's suddenly become a productive member of society. Throughout the film he remains fully committed to his "f--- everything and everyone" philosophy.
The oft-stated rationale behind why Little Miss Sunshine has more than enough antisocial content to earn an R rating is that, in the words of producer Albert Berger, this is how "families really interact and love one another." Star Steve Carell adds, "This is how families are. It's not all puppy dogs and ice cream all the time. It can get ugly, and it can get sad, and it can get funny, and that's how life really is."
There's no denying that life is sad and ugly and funny, sometimes all at once. So it's not my task here to debate Carell's and Berger's statements. What is my task is dealing with whether such truthfulness should be used as an excuse to fill up a film with better than 50 profanities and obscenities. And depictions of illegal drug abuse. And exhortations for teens to have as much sex as they possibly can. Because those things, along with the heartbreaking sight of a 7-year-old putting on a sex show, are exactly what happens here.
Tears welled up in my eyes when the Hoovers banded together and finally bonded in the minutes before the credits. I felt for them. I understood them at that moment. And I was rooting wholeheartedly for them to come out on the other side as better people and as a more intact family. But I couldn't stand the fact that their journey toward maturity and selflessness came at Olive's expense. To make a compelling, artistic, emotional, funny movie, screenwriter Michael Arndt didn't have to make the climax revolve around a child imitating a striptease. He didn't have to include a grandfather who in real life, and with all due consideration to family unity, should have long ago been separated from the lives of his grandchildren because of his incredibly immoral and dangerous behavior and influence. And he didn't have to punctuate every point with an f-word.
Call this, then, the Little Miss Indie Film That Hates Sunshine. "Without all the things we loved about it—the raunchy language, the outrageous behavior—it would have been the perfect family comedy," says its co-director Valerie Faris. "But we wanted to make a film not about family values, but about the value of family."
It shouldn't be so easy to separate the two.