Little Miss Sunshine is a comedy-drama film, starring Academy Award, Golden Globe Award as well as Emmy Award nominees and winners, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Abigal Breslin and Alan Arkin. The film itself was nominated for four Academy Awards and won two: Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Alan Arkin.
The film depicts the imperfections and issues faced by an American family and focuses on their road journey from Albuquerque, New Mexico to California just so that the daughter could participate in a beauty contest called ‘Little Miss Sunshine’. Hence, the title.
Before we start with the message and lessons learnt from the film, let’s look at the main and only characters of each member of this small family. The family consists of the following:
- The Dad, Richard Hoover (played by Greg Kinnear), a self-proclaimed ‘life-coach’ who constantly and annoyingly pressed the family about ‘winners and losers’ and the 9 steps ’Refuse to Lose’ programme,
- The Mom, Sheryl Hoover (played by Toni Collette), an overworked mother who was a divorcee before marrying the Dad,
- The Uncle, Frank Ginsberg (played by Steve Carell), the Mom’s little brother, a gay, depressed and suicidal pre-eminent Proust Scholar in the US,
- The Brother, Dwayne Hoover (played by Paul Dano), a Nietszche-loving 16-year old young chap who desires to be a pilot and has taken a vow of silence until he achieve that particular dream,
- The Little Daughter, Olive Hoover (played by Abigail Breslin), a 7 year old chubby and spectacled little girl who yearns to become a beauty queen and participated in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest.
- The Grandpa, Edwin Hoover (played by Alan Arkin), the heroin-snorter grandfather who also couched the little daughter for her routine on the upcoming Little Miss Sunshine.
Their road journey started when Olive was eligible for the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest at Redondo Beach, California and the whole family was forced to travel in a yellow Volkswagen microbus, a journey they can barely afford, just to see her compete.
- The philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.
Friedrich Nietzsche was a famous German philosopher, with great, well-known and powerful works among which includes ‘The Will to Power’, ‘Beyond Good and Evil’, ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ etc. Nietzsche was known for his criticisms of the traditional European morality and religion, and he was often associated with a group of late modern thinkers such as Marx and Freud.
In Little Miss Sunshine, the association of Nietzsche can be clearly seen on Dwayne Hoover’s character, who was a Nietzsche-loving teenager. Dwayne, played by Paul Dano, can be seen reading Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra in bed before he sleeps as well as along the journey to California and a large portrait of Nietzsche hanging at his bedroom wall. He can also be seen wearing a yellow shirt with bold black words ‘Jesus Was Wrong’ printed on it as well as another white shirt with an image of Nietzsche printed on it.
The concept of philosophies by Nietzsche highlighted in the film was of Nihilism, Will to Power and Ubermensch.
Nihilism came from the Latin word ‘nihil’ which means nothing. It also appears in the verb ‘annihilate’ which means to destroy or bring to nothing. From Nietzsche’s point of view, nihilism is ‘not only the belief that everything deserves to perish; but one actually puts one’s shoulder to the plough; one destroys’ (Will To Power). In simpler words, nihilism is the belief of extreme pessismism and radical scepticism, whereby a nihilist believes in nothing, has no loyalties and no purpose except to destroy. Nihilism is often an opposition to moral and religious values as it is a belief that denies the existence of truth and God by denying the validity of those values and their binding obligations upon humanity.
Will to Power (der Wille zur Macht) is one of Nietzsche’s greatest works, focusing on the human will. Nietzsche believes that the will to power is stronger than the will to survive as can be observed with martyrs willing to die for a cause that they feel gives them greater power. It is also considered stronger than the will to sex, as can be witnessed with monks renouncing sex for a greater cause that they believe in (sparknotes.com)Basically Nietzsche highlighted that the will to power is more of an inward force of personal mastery rather than the mastery over others. In a much simpler word, the will to power reflects the power exerted by human in the struggles to quench their desires.
Ubermesnch translated to superhuman/overman, a phrase from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The concept of Ubermensch according to Nietzsche would simply means the concept of willingness to risk everything for the sake of enhancement of humanity. In a much simpler word, overman is someone who has his own values with the capability to affect others, values independent of others and of herd instincts.
In relation to Little Miss Sunshine, Dwayne’s character has successfully, though not perfectly captures all the 3 concept of philosophies highlighted by Nietzsche.
The concept of nihilism can be seen with Dwayne’s confession of him hating everyone, saying that they were losers and that he did not want to be like them. His shirt with a print of ‘Jesus Was Wrong’ was an association to Nietzsche’s view of nihilism although he did misunderstood Nietzsche with the act of hating everyone when what Nietzsche really tried to convey was nihilism is actually an affirmation of an authentic life unbound by false values.
The concept of will to power and Ubermensch can be seen with Dwayne’s vow of silence in order to achieve his dream to become a pilot. In one of the conversation between Frank and Dwayne in the film, whereby Frank questioned, ‘You don’t speak because of Friedrich Nietzsche?’ was the portrayal of Dwayne’s will to power, which he have gotten from reading Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Having his dream crushed towards the ending of the film reflects Nietzsche’s concept of Ubermensch, where Dwayne realizes that the only thing that matters is his individual will and power to be what he wanted to be regardless of the view of others,
‘…And fuck the Air Force Academy, If I want to fly, I’ll find a way to fly. You do what you love, and fuck the rest.’
2. Marcel Proust.
Marcel Proust was a French novelist, one of the most influential in the 20th century, well-known for his views on pop culture. His best well-known work was a novel of seven volumes, called A la recherché du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) which he did not had a chance to complete before his death.
Basically, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time captures the sources of the meaning of life through the story of Proust himself, in his search for the purpose of life. The book was also an effort of Proust to help others, as his father, Adrien Proust did as one of the greatest doctors in France (thebookoflife.org).
In Search of Lost Time explore social success as one of the sources for a meaningful life. As someone who was born in a great and well-known household, Proust thought that life will be meaningful if he could join the social circles of those higher in hierarchy but was soon disappointed to come to realization that most of those ‘high-class’ society was not as extraordinary but rather, boring, cruel and mean. Hence, Proust highlighted that virtues and vices are scattered throughout the population regardless of income and social hierarchy.
The second source towards a meaningful life, according to Proust, was love. He believed that with the promise of love, came an understanding from one lover to another, and for that lovers can never be alone.
The third and most relatable source of a meaningful life, was art. Proust differentiated art with habits, whereby habits dull our senses and ruined us with familiarity, preventing us from appreciating the beauty of even the smallest things in life. Artist, as stated by Proust, are people who stripped away habits by looking at the world generously at a wider spectrum.
In Search of Lost Time taught readers to appreciate life in every moment while they lasts, the good, bad and ugly. Those moments are the monumental proof of what life really means and feels like.
In relation to Little Miss Sunshine, an obvious character portrayal would be Frank Ginsberg, the pre-eminent Proust Scholar in the United States. The film starts with Frank confessing his failed suicide attempt to Olive, stating that he was very unhappy. According to him, the events unfolding towards him actually tried committing suicide was falling in love with his male grad student who did not love him back-that boy he was in love with fell in love with Larry Sugarman, who is the ‘second most highly regarded Proust Scholar in the US’-he was upset and said things he should not have said and done things he should not have done-he was kicked out of his job-he was forced out of his apartment and had to move in a motel-the MacArthur Foundation awarded a genius grant to Larry Sugarman. Frank easily relates to the French novelist, Marcel Proust, as in being gay and his unrequited love affair with a guy, not to mention that he is actually a Proust Scholar.
In the words of Frank himself in a dialogue with Dwayne about wanting to sleep high school, Marcel Proust was a,
‘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 because they made him who he was. All the 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.’
3. Beauty Contest.
Little Miss Sunshine in it’s infinite yet hidden wisdom, actually exposed us to the American beauty standards and how human beings, as young as six and seven year olds are not excepted from this standards through various beauty contests held.
The opening of the film itself, showing Olive imitating a beauty queen from a television programme, reflects how the beauty standard set by society affects even those of younger age. Those age at which little girls should think of having fun and being happy and explore the world instead of diet pills, heavy adult-like makeup and staying skinny.
From the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest, it can be clearly seen that the young contestants were hyper-sexualised, competing with revealing swimwear and excessive doll-like makeup. Most contestants have the same facial features and body figure, fake tans and skinny bodies – the American beauty standard.
Which brought us to the scene when Richard and Dwayne, after witnessing those young contestants on stage and how they were heavily judged, decides to pull Olive out of it, worrying that people would laugh at her as she’s not ‘beauty queen material’. The idea was however, rejected by Sheryl, with her saying, ‘Olive is who she is. She has worked so hard. She has poured everything into this. We cant just take it away from her. We cant. I know you wanna protect her, I know honey. But we gotta let Olive be Olive.’
Eventually, Olive stayed to compete, in her own uniquely-ridiculous way. And that was one of the highlights of the film.
From the start to finish of the film, we are offered the views of a tense family on the verge of exploding. The issues of bankruptcy, stress and loss can be felt together throughout the whole story. However, each one of them was somehow overcame with the power of togetherness, family.
They might not be the perfect family. Each protagonist has his and her own problems to be dealt with. But having each others back helped them overcome each struggle that came their way.
For instance, their exceptional teamwork can be seen when dealing with the breakdown of the VW microbus. Despite their occasional lashings at each other, they still work together in order to get the van moving so that Olive can reach the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant on time. It can also be seen when Olive was almost threw off stage for her somehow ‘inappropriate’ dancing routine but the whole family came together to protect her and make her feel comfortable on stage.
When it comes to the theme of love within the family, Dwayne was the character that portrays it the most despite the ‘i-hate-everyone’ demeanour he shows on the surface. When Olive was accidentally abandoned at the gas station, Dwayne was the only one who noticed her disappearance and alerted the other family members. He was also the one who instruct Olive to hug Sheryl when she cried at the hospital, revealing that he actually cares for his Mom despite his reluctance to show it. During his major breakdown, no one but Olive could soothe him, wordlessly at that too. And when Olive was about to go on stage to showcase her routine, he was worried that she would be laughed and judged at and decided to talk her out of it to protect her from the viciously-judgemental crowd.
In a nutshell, Little Miss Sunshine portrays some hidden yet powerful message about being yourself, achieving your dreams, appreciating life and the strength of family. Despite the countless and somewhat ridiculous beauty standards set by society or those who makes money out of it, every single one of us should be thankful for who we are. Beauty is not definitively fair skin, slim figure or long eyelashes. It’s whoever and whatever you are. And you are the person who should have notice it first before anybody else. Be an Ubermensch if you can possibly be, a person with an ultimate power of your own values regardless of the thoughts of others. Struggle and failure is an essence of life. Life is not all about winning. You don’t learn much without losing. So, appreciate each and every losing moments in life. The best love is family love. When nobody else have your back, family will be there for you through thick and thin because ultimately, to be strong is to be together. And that’s exactly what a family offers.
Quoting from Dwayne himself,
‘Fuck beauty contests. Life is one beauty contest after another.’
Regardless of how you look or how well you do in life, you will always be judged. So ‘do what you love and fuck the rest.’ The only judgement that matters is His.
p/s: The soundtrack will blow you away.