Little Miss Sunshine

Debbie says:

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.

Little Miss Sunshine
size acceptance
body image
Miss America
Body Impolitic

11 thoughts on “Little Miss Sunshine

  1. Yep, me, too to most of what you said! The film was really entertaining in part because it kept looking like it would veer into hum-drum land and it just never did, taking a right turn whenever there was danger lurking. And although of course a bit exaggerated, it really reflected most families–just a collection of individuals trying to do the right thing. I also really appreciate the fact that this is the first try for this husband-wife director team. Can’t wait for the next one.

  2. Many kudos to this blog entry. I alluded to this and was glad to finally see a movie that deconstructed the air brushed dolls that these pageants turn out. I also liked the addition of the “biker dude” who came to watch the beauty pageant in a way that is probably disturbingly like someone attending an adult establishment.

    It was great that the adults, seeing the reaction the crowd is giving Olive, get onstage to assist her on her grandfather’s legacy to completely disrupt these disreputable shows that do exactly what Debbie says they do.

    The beauty pageant was the centerpiece.


  4. I work for a magizine and I am going to put that movie in the paper!It is going to win in Oscer for best movie of the year!I love that movie more then then any other!

  5. This is the best movie ever!if I would rate,I woud give it 110% thats how good it is!If you never saw this movie you should see it!

  6. First post here. Debbie made the best point of all (regarding) the inconsistency of the “JonBenet”-izing of that little girls’s beauty pageant, I must say. :))

    Both the issues concering 1) the VERY belated (:-)LOL) reactions of these judges toward this forced “slut”-ness willy nilly on these poor little girls till Oliver (Abigail B.), herself, our little heroine, comes on, and then “Super Freaks” (alright…!)(AND YET our “Little Miss Sunshine” truly is the most wholesome one, all of which has probaly been said to death before I ever did)..then “Super Freaks” out (as I was saying) the “staid”(and I use that term ironicially!) judges AND 2) the issue of Grandpa (Alan Arkin, quite hilarious and an Oscar Winner for this role), and a wonderful moral kinda love for this little girl.

    I have this on DVD.(and only a “Thank you for smoking’ promo, no OTHER TRAILERS or anything, just the MUNE after that.) There are SEVERAL commentaries, though this sexaulisation biz is just BRIEFLY touched on though..(BTW It really is filmed at this point in Redondo Beach. I love in Southern Calfi., where that is…I now mahy never look at Redondo Beach if THEY REALLY DO have a little girls’s beauty contest there again in the same way ever, but since that JonBenet Ramsey thing..I doubt THAT’S gonna happen..)

  7. Oh, by the way,I said:

    I have this on DVD.(and only a “Thank you for smoking’ promo, no OTHER TRAILERS or anything, just the MUNE after that.)”

    BTW that SHOULD have been just the “MENU after that”, not “MUNE”.

    Steve(now watching RED EYE)


  9. I loved this movie also. It was hilarious. And Steve it wasn’t filmed entirely in Redondo Beach if at all. The pageant part was filmed in Ventura, CA at the Carlton Suites. I used to live in Ventura and was just there this summer.

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