|Scene from Little Miss Sunshine|
It was the Little film that could. When one reads the plot description to co-directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton's Little Miss Sunshine, you'll be forgiven for thinking that it's stretching for laughs. The central cast features a beauty pageant dreamer, a failed salesman father, an aspiring fighter pilot son who remains silent, and a drug-addled grandfather. It's the stuff that would barely work in Arrested Development, yet somehow came to define an unprecedented indie hit that among other things received a Best Picture nomination along with a Best Supporting Actor win for Alan Arkin. It was a comedy that challenged the notion of dysfunctional families while also connecting on something deeper and more human. After 10 years, it still is a film that captures the essence of following your dreams, even if you're shut out for being different. It may have a lot of bizarre tassels to get over, but what it ends up being is sweet, sincere, and one of the most original independent comedies in recent history.
The story starts aware of its uphill battle. As Olive (Abigail Breslin) looks into a TV at a beauty pageant, she practices her gestures. In the language of cinema, she is "ugly": wearing thick glasses and sporting an awkward smile. She isn't unattractive, but the notion that she would be a beauty pageant contestant seems illogical. Yet she is passionate, believing in herself as she trains with her Grandfather (Arkin). In fact, the whole crux of the movie is on the moment of disbelief that her father Richard (Greg Kinnear) has. Richard is a man who "motivates" winners despite having no track record to prove it. He wants what's best for Olive, but believes in the futility of the pageant when Olive gets accepted. In a way, his knowledge that the journey ahead is more for experience than success, he is the first to begin an uphill battle that is met inside of a VW bus that has a variety of problems, including failure to start without the entire family pushing.
By the film's end, nobody is really a winner. To some extent, everyone has become disillusioned by their dreams falling apart. Olive's routine to Rick James' "Super Freak" gets her booed off the stage. In a moment of clarity, her family doesn't accept defeat and instead joins her in awkward, jerky routines. They're on display as the outsiders who have no way of ever being accepted. It becomes clearer when the bus has to forcefully be started once again by the now more united than ever family before crashing through a barrier blocking them from their journey home. It may seem anticlimactic to have a story where everyone fails to achieve the big picture. However, it produces one of the most genuine images of family seen in film so far this millennium.
What probably works is that the cast immediately reads like a farce. This is a film that defies you not to laugh at their problems, or find their eccentricities to be a tad annoying. This is especially true for Dwayne (Paul Dano), whose Nietzsche-adoring quest to be silent until he gets into the flight academy is undermined by the realization that he's color-blind and shares a room with his suicidal gay uncle Frank (Steve Carell in one of his better earlier turns towards drama). There's insensitivity and relatives being far too candid about their true feelings. Despite the antagonism, there's a sense of unity that forms, starting with basic functions such as getting the bus started to understanding their dreams aren't always tangible. As members of Middle America, they don't know the glitz and glamour that Olive is fighting for. They don't know what to do to be accepted. They merely try, try, try and will hopefully get a participation ribbon. Considering that most contestants get judged with far less backstory in this film, it makes sense that the film's eventual message is not to judge the weirdos by their differences. Let them just live life and be happy to be themselves.
So, what exactly separates this film from the hundreds of indie films of the time? Well word of mouth definitely helped, and the good reviews only amplified its attributes. Still, it grossed $100 million worldwide on an $8 million budget. Considering how untested Dayton and Faris were, it becomes more incredible to think of why this film even got to Best Picture. What probably helps is that it avoided the conflict of merely being quirky and instead had a profound depth that competitors didn't have. Along with being distributed by the up and coming voice of independent distribution with Fox Searchlight, the film got into a lucky corner where suddenly it was allowed to be as big as Dreamgirls and The Departed. It's a story that connected with audiences likely because everyone feels that their family is in some facet dysfunctional. This version just happens to be packed with inspired events after inspired events.
While the film has faded, most of the cast continues to do excellent work. Dano maybe did best shortly after with There Will Be Blood as Eli Sunday (he would work with the co-directors again on the less successful Ruby Sparks). Breslin, who earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination, was famously critiqued by Arkin claiming that she shouldn't win on grounds that it would ruin her career. Arkin himself would receive another Best Supporting Actor nomination for Best Picture winner Argo. Carell, whose understated work may be one of the best overlooked performances of the film, would finally receive a Best Actor nomination for Foxcatcher. To say the least, Little Miss Sunshine was part of setting a precedent for what independent comedies could do at the Oscars. Along with Sideways, there was a period in the late 00's that saw films like Juno and The Kids Are All Right manage to compete with dramas. It may be far from the first comedy ever nominated, but it's still a small class that reflects that quirky isn't always an irritant.
The longevity of the film is likely owed to the universal text underneath the eccentric archetypes. We all have obnoxious grandparents. We all have regret from past loves. We all come up short when it comes to desired programs. It may not be in this way specifically or in a van that whines that incessantly, but there's something reassuring about the film's desire to let family be themselves. It may be corny, and there are moments that are way too earnest. However, it's part of the formula to understanding what can be achieved, and what you actually want out of life. Little Miss Sunshine embodied that by being a runaway hit critically and financially. 10 years later, it still feels relevant because of how downtrodden and diverse culture and family remains. It's for the better that a film about judging others teaches us to be happy with ourselves regardless. With a great cast and direction that set the template for indie comedies to follow, it produces something funny, awe-inspiring and most of all human.