Mainstream Hollywood fare is all about winners, whereas American independent cinema is more concerned with losers. While the big studio pen-pushers peddle no less than the aspirations of the American dream itself, their budget-strapped cousins prefer to subvert the dominant ideology of white-toothed success, instead celebrating the sad beauty of failure.
Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Little Miss Sunshine is a case in point. The toast of Sundance, this leftfield dramedy champions a whole family of misfit no-hopers in that most American of competitions, a child beauty pageant, while assiduously resisting the ‘triumphant underdog’ story arc so beloved of Tinseltown.
As a motivational speaker, Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear) subscribes wholeheartedly to the optimistic values of the American Dream, but after sinking most of the family’s finances into his nine-step programme (“to put your losing habits behind you”), he has been unable to find either an audience or a backer. His wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) preaches honesty while lying about her smoking habit. Their son Dwayne (Paul Dano), a mixed-up teen into Nietszche and hating everyone, has taken a vow of total silence until he gets into the Air Force Academy.
Grandpa (Alan Arkin) is a foul-mouthed, priapic hedonist forced to move back in with the family after his heroin habit got him kicked out of the retirement home. Similarly Sheryl’s gay brother Frank (Steve Carell), a depressive, lovelorn Proustian scholar, has had to return to the fold to be closely monitored after an (inevitably unsuccessful) attempt at suicide.
Only the youngest member of the family, chubby bespectacled seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin), has so far remained untainted by failure, so when she is invited to attend the viciously competitive ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ beauty contest at Redondo Beach, California, the Hoovers find themselves investing all their hopes and fears in the perky innocent – and as they drive Olive west in a banged-up VW bus, neither humiliation, disappointment, officiousness, death nor even the lack of a working clutch will stop the Hoovers reaching their quixotic goal, as they come to learn that no kind of failure can beat the joy of failing together.
“Ok everybody, just pretend to be normal, like everything’s normal here,” Richard implores his family, after they have just been pulled over by highway patrolmen, with their horn permanently jammed in the ‘on’ position and something rather incriminating hidden in the trunk. The fact is, however, that the Hoovers are normal, and not so much despite as because of their many foibles, quirks and flaws.
They are the more down-to-earth flipside of that unattainable standard of perfection so often paraded in American cinema, and they are all the more endearing for it. So while Little Miss Sunshine may invite viewers to laugh at the snooty, judgemental folk whose paths the Hoovers cross, at the same time we are always laughing with the Hoovers themselves and their everyday dysfunction.
Little Miss Sunshine is a family road movie brimming with spot-on performances (Arkin in particular is, as always, a treat), hilarious situations, and plenty of good feeling – and it treats its comic characters with a rare affection. It may not change your life, but it will certainly leave you grinning – and, for a film about losers, it’s a real winner.