The Albuquerque family of Richard and Sheryl Hoover is in disarray. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a fledgling motivational speaker trying to secure a book deal for a hokey 9-step self improvement program. The frazzled Sheryl (Toni Collette), struggling to keep the family functional, picks up her brother Frank (Steve Carrell) from the hospital after he tried to kill himself over after a failed relationship. Frank is a homosexual professor of literature and an expert on the French author Proust.
Sheryl: I'm so glad you're still here.
Frank: Well, that makes one of us.
The Hoover's teenaged son Dwayne (Paul Dano) is severely antisocial, reads Nietzche, and has taken a vow of silence until he achieves his dream of entering flight school. Seven year old and slightly portly daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) is thrilled to learn that she has qualified to enter the Little Miss Sunshine child beauty pageant, but this means that the family will have to travel to Redondo Beach, California. Richard's dad Edwin (Alan Arkin) lives with the Hoovers after having been kicked out of a retirement home. He is a curmudgeonly, foul-mouthed and disruptive presence, but is helping Olive prepare her routine for the pageant's skills competition. Edwin also dabbles in heroin.
The family piles into their VW Van and embarks on the 800 mile road trip to California. Along the way not much will go according to plan: car trouble will slow down their progress; grandpa Edwin will encounter a significant mishap; Richard will finally receive news about his book deal, necessitating a quick detour to Scottsdale; the surly Dwayne will discover an unwelcome truth; and Frank will have to survive an awkward encounter with old acquaintances. As Olive's pageant draws closer, the family dynamics undergo dramatic changes.
[after being persuaded to go on the trip, Dwayne writes]
Frank: [reading Dwayne's writing] "Ok, but I'm not going to have any fun." Yeah, well, we're all with you on that one, Dwayne.
An independent film written by Michael Arndt and directed by the husband and wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Little Miss Sunshine is the little film that could. With a brilliant cast, well-defined characters and no shortage of funny moments, the road trip where everything can go wrong becomes a journey about a family rewiring all its connections. Filled with moments of delicious awkwardness and character-driven humour, the film achieves and sustains an irresistible tone of irreverent merriment.
Dwayne [writes] Please don't kill yourself tonight.
Frank: Not on your watch; I wouldn't do that to you.
Dwayne [writes] Welcome to Hell.
Frank: Thank you, Dwayne. Coming from you, that means a lot. Goodnight.
The theme throbbing at the heart of the film is about the strength of family ties, where problem issues can be extremely annoying but also superficial, and real strength resides in pushing together in the same direction. The VW van conspires to remind the Hoovers of the value of teamwork by losing its clutch early and necessitating a push start after every stop, the image of individuals forced to push together becoming the enduring image of the road trip. Later Richard and Dwayne will encounter severe disappointments while Edwin's unique misadventure threatens to derail the entire trip. The light and innocent touch of Olive becomes the most tender of unifying causes and a reason to believe in a better tomorrow.
None of the turmoil is lost on Frank, who serves as a recovering observer. Now he gets a front seat (or middle seat) to a family swimming in chaos, but also learning to stick together and not give up despite setbacks. Frank evolves from morose to a supportive role as he discovers that even he can provide caring at crucial moments.
Frank: Do you know who Marcel Proust is?
Dwayne: He's the guy you teach.
Frank: Yeah. French writer. Total loser. Never had a real job. Unrequited love affairs. Gay. Spent 20 years writing a book almost no one reads. But he's also probably the greatest writer since Shakespeare. Anyway, he, uh, he gets down to the end of his life, and he looks back and decides that all those years he suffered, those were the best years of his life, 'cause they made him who he was. All those years he was happy? You know, total waste. Didn't learn a thing. So, if you sleep until you're 18-- ah, think of the suffering you're gonna miss. I mean high school? High school-- those are your prime suffering years. You don't get better suffering than that.
The family comes to terms that unique individuals make the whole richer, a lesson that hits home at the pageant. We have to let Olive be Olive is Sheryl's rallying call, and the young girl goes on to unintentionally outdo all the hypocrisy on display, her family right behind her on the imperfect stage of life.
Police Officer Martinez: Okay, you're out. On the condition that you never enter your daughter in a beauty pageant in the state of California, ever again... ever.
Frank: I think we can live with that.
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