I did not expect to enjoy this movie, despite a rave review in the San Francisco paper. But my companion was interested, and I said “Why not?”
[Almost everything I really want to talk about is the ending, so those of you who don’t like spoilers can stop here.]
Basically, it’s another “fucked-up American family” comedy, well-written, well-acted, and depressingly plausible. It’s contrived, but enjoyable.
I knew something else was up when the family has a spat in a restaurant because dad doesn’t want his preteen daughter Olive, who dreams of being Miss America, to have ice cream (“those Miss America contestants aren’t fat, are they?”), and the whole family teams up to subvert him and encourage her to have the ice cream. Not what I was expecting. Better yet, that scene is echoed when Olive meets Miss California, says, “Do you eat ice cream?” and gets a very positive response.
After many travails too silly and contrived to mention, they arrive at the beauty contest. Olive is a good-looking girl who would not draw attention in a crowd, with long straight hair and big eyes and a tiny little belly. The other eleven contestants look like Jon-Benet Ramsay: lots of make-up and very styled hair, and super-sexy (in some cases raunchy) clothes. It is immediately apparent that Olive stands out like, well, an olive in a bowl of blueberries. She’s also the only one the viewer doesn’t feel sorry for.
Olive’s rake of a grandfather developed her act, and the family hasn’t seen it. The other acts are all young girls doing conventional night-club sexy song and dance. Olive’s father, brother, and uncle know exactly what they are seeing, and they don’t want Olive to be humiliated with her unsexy sweetness following this display. Finally, her mother leaves the decision up to her, and she grits her teeth and walks out onto the stage.
As I expected, Grandpa taught Olive a completely scripted stripper’s routine, complete with throwing items of clothing into the audience, crawling forward like a big cat in heat, rubbing her headband/scarf across her ass, and everything else except a pole dance (no poles on the runway), although she never takes off either shirt or short shorts. The audience, and the contest organizers, are horrified beyond description, to the point of trying to get the family arrested.
Why are they horrified? Because the movie directors (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris) are doing two extremely subversive things at the same time:
First, they are laying bare the slimy underlayer of these pre-teen beauty contests, showing us visually how the night-club acts are oversexualized to the point where the stripper behavior is not out of context–but the organizers treat it as repulsive because otherwise it would force them to admit the subtext of their careers to themselves.
Second, because the whole movie has been spent showing us what a normal, likable, and unsexualized little girl Olive is, it detaches stripper behavior from stripper personality. The directors were even smart enough to put in a prefiguring scene with Olive and her grandfather sharing a motel room, just to make it absolutely clear that the old wolf is not molesting or misusing his granddaughter: he just loves her with an uncomplicated love, and is playing a big joke on the world. When Olive walks onto the runway in top hat we know with complete certainty that Olive is going through these motions without the faintest understanding of what they mean. We are left with the impression that some of the other contestants’ more socially acceptably sexualized routines might be less innocent.
Dayton and Faris, aside from making an entertaining movie, have really successfully undermined a lot of what our culture thinks it knows about beauty contestants, strippers, pre-teen girls, and early sexualization. I’m really glad I saw it.