I don’t want to be your family! I hate you people! I hate you! Divorce! Bankrupt! Suicide! You’re losers!
— Dwayne (Paul Dano)
“In life, there are winners and there are losers,” says motivational speaker Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear). And while he assumes no one wants to be a loser, Little Miss Sunshine presents a question. As it considers all manner of life’s contests, it asks whether they are worth winning, or if it might be better to lose, and lose spectacularly.
The film opens with Richard’s daughter, seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) watching and re-watching the final moments of a Miss America Pageant. She studies the winning contestant’s face, rewinding between the moments before the winner is announced, and the moment after, as though she needs to examine that exact occurrence to understand the difference between winner and loser. Olive’s no traditional beauty queen, evident by her bulky glasses and round belly. But she’s been rehearsing a talent routine with her Grandpa (Alan Arkin). When she takes second place in a pageant and the winner is disqualified, she’s suddenly eligible for national finals, giving her family cause to arrange a weekend road trip from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach in their dilapidated VW bus to see her compete for the title of “Little Miss Sunshine.”
While Olive is still young and trusting, the rest of her family resents her father’s investment in “winning.” Her mother Sheryl (Toni Collette) tries to ignore him (she must support the family) and teenaged Dwayne (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence, going on nine months now. Just released from the hospital following a suicide attempt, Sheryl’s brother Frank (Steve Carell) inspires Richard’s disdain. Even as Frank tries to explain to Olive that he was “very unhappy,” Richard puts it another way. Her uncle, he says, chose to “lose at life.” A gay, renowned Proust scholar, Frank recently lost his student lover (Justin Shilton) and his teaching job, not to mention the MacArthur Genius Grant, awarded instead to the same colleague who stole his boyfriend. When Sheryl tells her brother, “I’m glad you’re still here,” Frank sighs, “That makes one of us.”
Still, Sheryl hopes the road trip will bring both Frank and Dwayne around, as she encourages the family to rally behind Olive’s desire to win. In the van and at rest stops, their interactions tend to break down into contests, both small and large. As always happens in road trip movies, the family comes to understand and even appreciate one another as they drive. And Little Miss Sunshine is not subtle: when the clutch goes out in the van, they literally have to get out and push every time they want to restart it.
Even as Sheryl and Grandpa try to soothe little Olive, Richard’s “refuse to lose” credo creates a mountain of expectation for her (he even discourages his daughter from enjoying a bowl of ice cream so she will “stay skinny and win”), the film is never much concerned with the pageant per se. Rather, the film sympathizes with Olive’s irascible Grandpa, who reassures her unconditionally. When she worries that losing will upset her father — “Daddy hates losers,” she whimpers — Grandpa changes the terms. “A real loser,” he says, “isn’t someone who doesn’t win. A real loser is someone so afraid of not winning, they don’t even try.”
It’s tough to imagine any event less obviously metaphorical than a children’s beauty pageant. This one is manifestly ridiculous, with prepubescent girls flaunting their stuff, wearing gaudy costumes and frozen smiles, as their parents cheer them from the audience. Watching the spectacle alongside Olive’s family, it looks almost frightening. Why, they wonder, does Olive even want to do this? As she prepares backstage for the talent portion of the contest, the film cuts to a shot of Dwayne and Frank, who have stepped outside for much-needed “air.” They stand on a nearby pier looking out on a vast, gray ocean. “Life’s one big beauty pageant,” the nephew declares. At which point, they decide to head inside to support Olive anyway.
Little Miss Sunshine – Trailer