Little Miss Sunshine is a good example of a ‘comic journey’ story structure.
For fans of another well-known drama set in Albuquerque, fans of Breaking Bad may be interested to know that both Bryan Cranston and Dean Norris have small roles in Little Miss Sunshine.
There’s a ticking clock in this film because the pageant has a set date and time. To the outsider, the stakes are low. But for this family, a successful time together means all.
In the first scene we see a little girl’s bespectacled eyes watching a Miss America pageant on TV so we see that she desires to be a beautiful winner of a pageant. For more on the significance of this opening shot, see this video by Now You See It: Opening Shots Tell Us Everything.
Olive’s family has mental health problems and a complicated dynamic. Her gay uncle Frank has just tried to kill himself because he fell in love with one of his students who didn’t love him back. Olive’s mother has brought him home so that she can keep an eye on him at all times.
Grandpa is addicted to heroin and his rehab was unsuccessful.
Olive’s older brother Dwayne seems to be a bit of an emo who has given up talking. “I hate everyone.”
The father’s career in motivational speaking is floundering. We see Richard give a presentation but when the lights come on it’s a mostly empty room. His main message is that if you want something badly enough you can have it.
Olive’s grandfather is a crotchety, inappropriate old man who snorts heroin.
All of this dysfunctionality comes out at the family dinner.
Albuquerque to Regina, Redondo Beach California road trip. In California the skyscape is foggy and a bit wintry. This isn’t the bright, sunny California of most films. We are told early on where the journey will take these characters. This allows the audience to sit back and enjoy the ride.
A family house in the Albuquerque suburbs to a pageant hall.
Inside a VW van in between. The yellow is a good choice for the Kombi (and for a film with sunshine in the title) which itself is associated with fun trips with groups of hippie friends. The disharmony inside the van therefore seems ironic.
The family needs to learn to work together. Here we see an early shot of the ensemble, each absorbed in their own menus, each choosing their own dishes. The family has not yet learnt to work together. We’ll see at least three medium shots including each member of the family over the course of the film. Finally we’ll see them on stage together, then driving away all working in unison to get a van going.
Dwayne and Frank both need to become less pessimistic and to move on after their life plans don’t go exactly as they would hope.
Richard needs to learn that he can derive self-worth from being a family man rather than receiving applause from strangers in an audience in his work as a motivational speaker.
A phone call tells Olive that the winner of the Albuquerque Little Miss Sunshine contest has pulled out and since Olive was runner-up now she gets to go to the finals instead if she would like. Olive is over the moon about this, letting out a lengthy, high-pitched squeal.
Olive wants to go to the pageant in California and Sheryl wants to get her there. But Sheryl also wants to keep an eye on the whole family. Dwayne wants to be left alone to do strength training in preparation for entering the airforce, and to read. Frank is in a state of complete inertia having just attempted suicide. Richard wants to stay home to save money while keeping on working which, in his mind, will lead to great success simply because he wants it so much. Richard is a walking embodiment of The American Dream.
Olive’s ally is the grandfather, although he looks like an opponent at first (a ‘fake opponent ally’ set up). Who wants to be stuck in a van with him on a roadtrip? Anyone?
This family is fighting with each other in a complex dynamic. Only Olive is too young to have been drawn into all this, although when Frank explains his suicide and what led up to it at dinner, we see Olive’s initiation into the fray.
Richard and his father are the main opponents inside the van.
Dwayne ‘hates everyone’.
Along their trip they come across a series of opponents, in a film which is a mythic journey.
Olive’s greatest impediment to success is her own father, who thinks he’s doing her good by:
- telling her that people are either winners or losers — there is no in between
- telling her the truth about ice-cream and body size
Her father contrasts with the grandfather who, for all his crassness, is at least a straight talker who can teach Olive a couple of valuable life lessons before he shuffles off.
Changed desire and motive
Instead of just Olive and Sheryl taking the plane to California, as would be the least story-worthy but most sensible thing to do — this family’s financial and caregiving circumstances mean that the lot of them will all be taking a road trip in a VW van.
First revelation and decision
First revelation: The Kombi van breaks down. The spare clutch won’t arrive for a good four days.
Decision: So now they have to work together and push it to get it going.
The entire family will to drive to California and Olive will compete in the pageant.
Opponent’s plan and main counterattack
On this road journey, Richard and Frank will have run ins with human opponents:
Frank meets his love interest in a gas station. It’s the worst possible encounter: He’s in the middle of buying a porn mag, his academic and love rival is outside in a flash convertible, and the love interest is rubbing salt into the wound of his having been fired.
At the same time, the father gets a phone call from work with some bad news – a ‘done deal’ has fallen through. They’re going to be in trouble financially. It has already been set up that they’re living on a tight budget.
They continue on their journey.
They realize they’ve left Olive behind, who had been in the toilet, so go back to get her. In the van, the granddad tells Richard he’s proud of him.
Attack by ally
At the motel Cheryl and Richard argue and the son and uncle can hear them through the thin walls.
Grandpa and Olive share a twin room. Grandpa reassures Olive that she’s pretty. She’s scared of losing because ‘Dad hates losers’.
“You know what a loser is? It’s someone who’s so scared of losing they don’t even try.”
Richard sees no other career options and money is about to become a huge issue.
We see Sheryl smoking on the landing.
We see grandpa preparing to use heroin.
Obsessive drive, changed drive, and motive
Leaving his family at the motel, Richard decides to confront the guy he works for and get some kind of deal sorted. He leaves the hotel saying, “I’m gonna fix this.”
Second revelation and decision
Richard finds that the program he was told was cancelled is happening without him. He confronts the dodgy boss. Stan tells Richard to move on from the 9 Steps program.
The juxtaposition between Stan’s ritzy hotel and Richard’s dive of a motel is stark.
Third revelation and decision
Revelation: Olive tells her parents in the morning, “Grandpa won’t wake up.” They take him to hospital. Dwayne tells Olive to go hug mom. The doctor tells the family that grandpa is dead. A woman comes with the paperwork for death. It’s going to be a problem crossing state lines with a body. Nor are they allowed to abandon the body in the spot and continue on to the pageant, picking him up on the way back.
Decision: Richard says they’ve already travelled 700 miles, he’ll be damned if he won’t make the contest. So they sneak out, taking the body with them. “There are two kinds of people in this world, there’s winners and there’s losers.” (Arc phrase.) This scene turns into a bit of a caper, with appropriate music (a fast, catchy Latin beat with whistling). There’s nothing like a common opponent to make a group work well together – the family works together to get the body into the van, then the brother and uncle push the van to get her going for the last leg of the journey.
We realise some time around this point that the family is working well together rather than arguing.
Gate, gauntlet, visit to death
Everything that could possibly go wrong on a road trip has gone wrong — they’ve even lost one member of the family to death. Even after grandpa’s dead, there are still problems crossing state lines with bodies.
When the horn gets stuck and they’re pulled over by a cop with a dead body in the back, we think this is the end for their trip:
In the car Olive asks, “Dad? What’s gonna happen to grandpa? Uncle Frank? Do you think there’s a heaven?”
“It’s hard to say, Olive. I don’t think anyone knows for sure.”
Frank’s life is a mess, but unlike Richard, he is able to see things in shades of grey.
Frank is cut off. He honks, but the horn is now stuck.
They are pursued by a police officer.
“Pretend to be normal, okay?”
The cop searches the vehicle but finds the porn magazine that Frank bought for the grandpa at the gas station (as well as Frank’s one). The cop gets sidetraced by that and put off, leaving without discovering the dead body illegally crossing state lines.
There are a series of big struggle scenes around this point. The first is for Dwayne. Inside the van Olive is playing with a colour blind test and Dwayne realizes he’s colour blind. This has big ramifications because he won’t be able to fly jets, which he has taken very seriously. He flies into a rage in the van. They stop the van for him but he refuses to get back in. Olive talks him round at Frank’s suggestion.
For Richard, the big struggle is around at least doing this one thing right — taking his family on a road trip. Everything else in his life is going haywire and he needs to prove to himself that he is a winner, not a loser. There is a spoof action scene climax as Richard drives the van through a boom gate and a chain link fence and the wrong way down a one way street. The side door falls off in the pageant car park and Frank rushes inside to secure Olive’s position.
The entire big struggle of getting to the pageant is represented for Frank in the scene where Frank argues with the officious woman at the front desk who insists that they can’t register Olive because they’re four minutes late.
For Olive, the big struggle is between how she will choose to see herself, represented by the scene in which she examines herself in the dressing-room mirror. Will she go with ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’ and ‘loser’? Or will she choose to be a ‘winner’ by giving it a go?
Sheryl, as you can see by this point, is not a main character in this story. In fact, she adheres to the female maturity principle, in which female characters are often the most calm and balanced from the story’s beginning to its end, which means in effect that women in stories don’t change, are therefore not the heroes of stories and are therefore seen as less interesting, despite the apparent flattering treatment.
The anagnorises happen at the beauty pageant, and for Frank and Dwayne, during their conversation at the pier.
Richard deals with his father’s body in the carpark and realises that he is still somebody as long as he has his family.
Olive’s anagnorisis comes at some point in her dressing-room big struggle scene. We see her make her decision as the rest of her family comes backstage and tries to persuade her not to perform. “We’re not in Albuquerque anymore.”
Frank opens a newspaper to find his arch nemesis has now written a best selling book as well as having been given a genius grant and partenering up with the young, good-looking student and driving a convertible. His nemesis has now had every possible success — this guy is the uber-successful version of himself, and now Frank has nothing left but to let that dream of himself go.
On the pier, Frank and Dwayne have a discussion which tells the audience they’ve each made a moral decision. Both have suffered huge setbacks — all that’s left for them to do is accept their fates and move on.
Olive’s moral decision is to perform anyway. Surely she has realised that she doesn’t have the body of a traditional pageant beauty and that her act is nothing like the acts of the other girls.
She dedicates the show to her grandpa who showed her the moves. She performs ‘Can’t touch this’ with inappropriately sexualised moves, and because we’ve seen the grandpa it comes as no surprise to the audience. She basically performs a strip tease. Half the audience walks out. But Frank stands up and claps to the beat. He’s joined by Richard, who has realised after a brief interaction with a creepy dude in the audience, that his daughter’s performance is no more sexualised than that of the other little objectified girls — Olive’s simply being more up-front about it.
By the time we see Olive’s entire family dancing on stage we can see that their moral decision, collectively, is to stick together and not worry about anyone else. Richard and This is a scene reminiscent of About A Boy. Soon the whole family is rocking on stage, holding hands, dancing round in circles. They’re now a team.
A policeman has been called. He tells the family to leave California without entering their daughter in a beauty pageant in the state again. Frank says, “I think we’re okay with that.” So we see them leave for home, passing the officious pageant lady at the gate, smashing through the boom bar. They drive honking on their way back to Albuquerque, a vehicular finger up at the outside world.