Little Miss Sunshine is one of the cutest film titles that I have come across. It is warm, appealing and has a sweet ring to it. The words are simple and the phrase has an extremely high recall value making it a great title regardless of the film. In case you’re wondering about titles with low recall value, think titles like – Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind; She’s Just Not That Into You; Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. These titles are long and relatively complex phrases take more than one hearing to be etched in memory.
The title also is responsible for communicating the mood and feel of the story and Little Miss Sunshine does this brilliantly. The title easily sets the audience up for a feel-good story and but doesn’t give away the story itself. Giving away the theme of the film is a great way to attract the correct audience while also keeping people curious to know what is the story all about.
Could there be a better alternative to this title? Possibly, but I was content enough with Little Miss Sunshine.
Premise/ Logline Review
Logline – A dysfunctional family decides to take an arduous road trip from Albuquerque to Los Angeles in their yellow minibus, to fulfil their seven-year-old daughter’s dream of competing in the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant. (Click here to find out what a logline is)
The premise of Little Miss Sunshine is crystal clear. A family attempts to help their daughter fulfil her dream. The simplicity of this premise makes it evident that this is a coming of age story with a plethora of characters portraying the family.
At first glance, the premise points to the girl being the protagonist of the story but when you look closer, it also identifies the dysfunctional family as the protagonist trying to help their daughter. Therein lies the beauty of this concept. A family of underdogs (dysfunctional) helping an underdog (seven-year-old) achieve her dream.
The simplicity of the premise begs the questions – why on earth is a seven-year-old competing in a beauty pageant? Will she be “Little Miss Sunshine”?
These questions are the unique selling points of this premise.
The plot immediately establishes the dysfunctional family of the Hoovers. Olive is the youngest of them and dreams to be a beauty pageant winner. Her brother Dwayne is an indifferent teen who has taken a vow of silence until he becomes a test pilot. Their father Richard is a stuck up, unsuccessful motivational speaker and their mother Sheryl is an overworked, anxious woman bringing home her brother Frank, a homosexual Proust scholar after his attempted suicide. The final member is Richard’s dad, the best version of a dirty grandpa character, I have ever seen– he speaks foul and loves his drugs and has been expelled from his retirement home. He also happens to be Olive’s coach for this contest.
When Olive learns that she’s qualified for the Little Miss Sunshine contest the entire family sets off in their washed-up RV to get her from their home in Albuquerque to California. Her family wants her dream to come true, but they are so burdened with their own oddities, hang-ups, and snags that they can barely make it through a day without some disaster befalling them. As the case of any road trip story, these characters comically deal with their personal struggles and scuffle to come together as a family.
The choice of characters makes this plot simple yet manages to pull off some clever twists. The plot doesn’t have a specific antagonist. The characters and their interactions are so weird that they don’t need an antagonist to create further problems. This makes their journeys funny, yet relatable. The situations faced by the characters range from having undertones of dry humour to being absolutely hilarious. The plot manages to be consistent in this regard while playing with the tension of reaching their ultimate goal of reaching the contest.
Little Miss Sunshine’s runtime is just over 100 minutes. It is not a long film by any stretch of the imagination and the length is apt for the kind of story writer Michael Arndt tries to tell. Road trips are a tricky genre to pace as most of the conflicts are supposed to be situational through the journey and yet one too many situations might not sit well with the audience because the characters or the story may not develop even though they are caught in a situation. Think of movies like Road Trip or We’re The Millers. These are hilarious road trip stories that base al their comedy out of situations and yet we could pull out some of the situations and replace them with other comical scenarios and that story would not change. The best stories make every situation contribute to the greater scheme of things and Little Miss Sunshine excels in this department.
Even when the characters are going through their personal battles, they are intertwined impressively with other characters and the ultimate goal of reaching California.
The opening sequence is a great example of how as many as 6 central characters are established within the first 4 minutes of the story. Apart from being a memorable opening sequence, this execution testifies how much pacing can change the levels of engagement in the audience. The story is clustered in such sequences which raise the stakes for the family consistently. This sequence partnered with linear storytelling makes the pace feel even and doesn’t get one bothered or bored.
I loved each and every character! You would too! It is very seldom that you come across a storywhich makes you root for every character because rooting for someone makes you hate another
character or even worse, stop caring for them. Well written characters make us empathise with their concerns however absurd their needs are. The more diverse these characters are designed, the more interesting their interactions get. Of all the elements, characterizing the Hoovers is definitely the highlight of this story.
Every character is so well etched out that each could possibly have a film of their own. Each of them deals with a unique issue while dealing with issues they face against each other and the world.
Imagine Olive who is plump and so young that she can’t even comprehend the demands of looking Barbie perfect. Imagine the father trying to implement his own motivational program on himself and his family as no one buys into it. Even Dwayne who is silent for more than two-thirds of the story is compelling as he hates everything and everyone and yet shows his softer side for his sister.
Each character goes through huge character change and has big emotional arcs with Richard (father) possibly experiencing the biggest arc. I would like to especially mention Steve Carell (Frank) and Alan Arkin (Grandpa) for enacting their characters to perfection. Alan Arkin received the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and he wasn’t even the most central of the ensemble. Just goes to show how well-crafted everyone in the story was.
The dialogues aren’t the highlight of Little Miss Sunshine. That is not to say that the delivered lines are bad. The dialogues are very realistic to fit the dullness that each character represents in the world. All the characters in the family are underdogs and it only makes sense that underdogs speak like underdogs.
Dialogues are natural and very funny at times but these lines are funny because of the situation faced by them rather than their phrasing and language. The grandpa has to be the winner when it comes to having the funniest and most inappropriate lines.
Where the dialogues do deliver is the specificity with which they are told by every character. All the characters have their own way of talking and this makes each of them memorable if not the dialogues itself. This is great execution.
Theme & Tone Review
There are several themes that ooze out of Little Miss Sunshine. The most obvious one is how little girls are exposed to beauty competitions. It shows how these seemingly innocuous contests make children act like adults and perform in every non-childish way in order to win. It is weird to watch such a young kid perform like America’s top model when she should be playing and gorging on ice cream. This idea brews over the entire story until it boils over in a spectacular climax.
The other consistent theme is of winning and losing. Since all the characters of the family are underdogs trying to turn their tide in one way or another, the story tries to convey the idea that it is okay to lose. Every central character has a take on winning or losing, be it Richard who is desperate to have his daughter wins Little Miss Sunshine or her brother who thinks that she shouldn’t participate in such a demeaning contest or even the grandpa who doesn’t care if she wins or loses and tries to instil self-love in her. The theme also applies to other characters who have their own struggles and end up facing their wins as well as loses.
Lastly, unity is a theme which comes through well in this story. A dysfunctional family which is not perfect in any sense manages to settle their differences and fight for the same cause is a pronounced theme. The members of the family realise that even if they fail in their own goals, their family is always there to support them. Even though they are dysfunctional, they are family.
With one of the best opening sequences of all time, Little Miss Sunshine manages to hook the audience inside the first four minutes as well as establish what each character is all about. Because one understands each character so quickly, the structure of the story is kept extremely linear and simple thereafter.
Little Miss Sunshine has no flashbacks or intercuts or any other screenplay gimmicks to confuse the audience or delay the reveal of something that is obvious. Sure there are a great many revelations as we go deeper into the story but all of them reveal themselves organically. There are no logical fallacies and there isn’t much scope for it as the story is told in a day-wise sequence.
The length of the story is appropriate as every scene is important and there are no bits that are placed for the sake of cinematic liberty. The structuring is simple but it focuses on increasing the stakes continuously over the course of the story.
It’s original alright! Little Miss Sunshine can be categorised as a character-driven story rather than a plot-driven story. This means that once they set off for their mission, most of the choices the characters make lead them to situations of greater consequence and the end. Hence it feels like a very real story which could only happen to this particular family with their peculiar personalities.
This story is a prime example of how character designing and character development can be used as tools to create an innovative and novel story even inside clichéd genres such as coming of age, road trip and family drama.
A story like Little Miss Sunshine will find it difficult to complete against franchises and festive releases as it is not
executed in a very commercial and mass pleasing manner. But this doesn’t stop it from punching above its weight and earning over 100 million dollars in gross. With a budget of 8 million, Little Miss Sunshine was a success both critically and commercially.
What works for the story is aspects like it being a comedy and its family-centric approach. Aside
from that, a talented cast that includes stalwarts like Steve Carell and Greg Kinnear will always draw audiences. The critical reception that the film received also helped the film a long way in garnering profits. Little Miss Sunshine is an example of a low key film that manages to balance the fine line of commercial and critical success in an era of superheroes, biopics and fantasies.
Most Memorable Scene
Most Memorable Dialogue
Hope you enjoyed this review. To download Little Miss Sunshine screenplay click here!