Road Trip Movies: Little Miss Sunshine 

The first time I saw Little Miss Sunshine I was home from work with a killer TMJ headache. I figured it is worth a re-watch, and what better time than in prep for NaNoWriMo and the Road Trip Movie Hero’s Journey breakdown series. I wanted to laugh at the funny moments without the subsequent rolling over and clutching my pounding head. The laughing part happens a lot here because this is a very funny movie.

From the Netflix synopsis:

“Convinced their little Olive is beauty queen material, two parents load the rest of the family — including Olive’s silent brother, depressed uncle and wacky grandpa — into a van and embark on a life-altering road trip to a California pageant.”


Warning: full spoilers ahead.

Ordinary world

In Albuquerque, NM (!!), the Hoover family is up to shenanigans: little Olive (Abigail Breslin) wants to be Miss America so badly she watches and rewatches the pageant; father Richard (Greg Kinnear) gives his “Refuse to Lose” 9-step motivational speech to a room of roughly six people; willfully silent teenage brother, Dwayne (Paul Dano) pumps iron in his bedroom and marks off the days in preparation for flight school at the AF Academy; Grandpa (Alan Arkin) snorts heroin behind a locked bathroom door; and mother Sheryl (Toni Collette) picks up her suicidal brother, Frank (Steve Carell), from the hospital.

Call to Adventure

Sheryl’s sister leaves a message on the answering machine saying that Olive earned a spot in the regional Little Miss Sunshine contest from when she visited in California.

Refusal of the Call

Richard doesn’t want to blow through his motivational program seed money on airline tickets to California and Sheryl says there is no way they are not taking their daughter to something she is so excited about she is running around the house screaming. The rest of the family, particularly Dwayne, are not enthused about going on the road for this, but the mother gets her way (as she should).

Just another fun family dinner in
Just another fun family dinner in “Little Miss Sunshine.”

Meeting with the Mentor

Richard asks Olive if she believes she can win Little Miss Sunshine.


Crossing the First Threshold

“Welcome to hell,” the non-speaking Dwayne writes to Frank.

“Coming from you, that means a lot,” says Frank.

The entire family packs into the VW bus and takes off for California.


Tests, Allies, Enemies

Boy, is this family road trip fun. Grandpa advises 15 year old Dwayne to fuck a lot of women. Richard futilely yells at Grandpa to shut up. At the first diner stop, Richards almost spoils Olive’s enthusiasm for ice cream by informing her that ice cream makes you fat and Miss America winners are not fat.

The clutch on the van goes out en route to Arizona, so they now have to push the van to go fast enough to automatically switch into the right gear w/o the clutch. (I don’t know a freaking thing about clutches.) At the next pit stop Richard finds out his speaking engagement deal is falling through. Frank is buying porn for himself and Grandpa when he is accosted by his ex-lover who is on the way to a conference with Frank’s academic rival; this does not help Frank’s sense of well-being, to say the least.

Grandpa tells Richard that even if his deal is a bust, he’s proud of him for going for it.

Approach to the Innermost Cave (Approaching the Dark Moment)

At the hotel for the night, Richard and Sheryl fight about the failed deal. Frank and Dwayne, in the next room, hear them, and for the fist time, Dwayne actually smiles. Frank mourns his ex love. In another room, Olive starts to worry she doesn’t have what it takes to win and doesn’t want to be the kind of loser her dad hates. Grandpa tells her a real loser is someone who’s so scared of not winning they don’t even try.

Richard decides to fix the speaking deal. He borrows a motorbike to meet with the guy who told him he could sell Richard’s 9-step program. When the guy tells him nobody cares about him or what he has to offer, Richard starts learning to practice what he preaches about overcoming obstacles.

The Ordeal

Olive’s greatest cheerleader, Grandpa, dies. At the hospital, the bereavement counselor informs them they can’t leave the body nor can they transport it across state lines. Looks like it’s bye bye Little Miss Sunshine contest. Richard says no: we don’t let anything stop us, we can’t leave Grandpa here, he needs to see Olive compete. In a bit of righteously dark hilarity, the entire family rises to the occasion, smuggles Grandpa’s dead body out of the hospital, and are back on the road. After a close call with a motorcycle cop, a second ordeal occurs when Dwayne discovers he is color blind, which means he cannot fly jets as he has been dreaming of for the past year. He is so distraught he screams that he hates them all and will not continue on to California. After Olive simply rests her head on his shoulder and hugs him, he calms down enough to get back in the van so they can make it to the contest in time.

Olive comforts her brother Dwayne in Little Miss Sunshine.
Olive comforts her brother Dwayne in “Little Miss Sunshine.”

The Reward

After a harrowing arrival at the hotel, Olive is entered into the contest and gets to meet Miss California. Olive is tickled pink to learn that Miss Cali herself does indeed eat ice cream.

The Road Back (Return)

In the dressing room, Olive is only slightly disconcerted by all the hair teasing and primping on the part of the other contestants. Frank sees that his rival has published a lauded scholarly book. Dwayne hates the pageant scene with a passion. Richards arranges for Grandpa’s remains and watches wistfully as the undertakers drive away.

During the preliminary ceremonies, Richard’s a bit disturbed by the overly made-up, sexualized little girl contestants and the system that encourages this insanity.

Contestants in
Contestants in “Little Miss Sunshine” pageant.

Frank has a heart to heart with Dwayne, who decides he’ll figure out a way to fly after all, to do what he loves despite his obstacles.

The Resurrection (Climax)

Richard becomes increasingly apprehensive as he watches the other contestants perform; it is dawning on him that this is not the best scene for Olive and that she is out of her depth. Frank and Dwayne catch two seconds of a swiveling, yellow fringe sequined cowgirl dancing and realize um, no. Dwayne goes backstage to get Olive out of there. We fully realize the danger Olive’s in when we see her costume: white boy’s shirt, red tie, track pants, vest, red headband, and her oversized glasses. Richard and Dwayne tell Sheryl she can’t let Olive perform and be laughed at. Sheryl says that this is what Olive wants to do and has worked so hard for. They can’t take that away from her. Despite having overhead her brother say “she’s not a beauty queen,” Olive decides to go on.

Onstage, Olive tells the MC that her performance is for her Grandpa, who taught her the moves. She proceeds to bust out to “Super Freak.” The innocently suggestive moves scandalize almost the entire audience, except for Miss California. (Apparently bikinis and hip wiggling and two inches of makeup are okay, tough.) When the MC tries to remove Olive from the stage, Richard tackles him. Soon the entire family joins Olive onstage to dance with her in wild abandon.

Olive is joined onstage by her family in
Olive is joined onstage by her family in “Little Miss Sunshine.”

Return with the Elixir (Permanence of the Change)

The pageant officials are not pleased. A police officer tells the family they’re free to go as long as they never enter their daughter in a beauty pageant in the state of California again. Ever. Frank says, “I think we can live with that.”

Richard tells Olive that her Grandpa would have been very proud of her. The family tells her she was great, she was incredible. Smiling, happy, and full of the joy they have learned by taking this journey, they push the van into gear, run and hop in one by one, and head back home.

Wrap up:

After watching this movie again with a clear head this time, I have come to the conclusion that this is one of the best movies EVER, and I need to go buy a copy immediately for my home collection.

Coming up over the next couple of weeks: Thelma and Louise and Take Me Home.

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