Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Little Miss Sunshine is a good example of a ‘comic journey’ story structure.

movie poster Little Miss Sunshine
A lot of indie movies have yellow film posters. Yellow almost equals indie by now. But the yellow in this film is symbolically linked to a word in the title, of course.

Genre Blend: comedy, drama.

Little Miss Sunshine uses one of the oldest comic structures, the comic journey. This form goes all the way back to Don Quixote and is really a combination of the comic and myth forms. Part of the success of this combination is that these two genres are in many ways opposites. The myth form, using the journey as its main technique, wants to be big, heroic and inspiring. Comedy is about cutting things down to size, finding the falsely big and poking a hole in it. So in a comic journey story, the myth sets up the laughs (puffing up the characters), while the comedy provides the punchline.

— John Truby

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.

  van from above

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.

Little Miss Sunshine uses two techniques that are especially valuable: the endpoint and the family.

— John Truby

Self-revelation, need, desire

grandma glasses

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.

opening scene watching pageant on tv

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Gravity (2013) Film Study

gravity-movie-poster

Gravity is a science fiction film from 2013, with a strong mythological, Christian influence.

Logline: A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after an accident leaves them adrift in space.

Tagline: (seen above) Don’t let go.

Arc word: ‘let go’. “You’ve got to learn to let go,” Matt tells Ryan. We’ve also got the visual motif of Ryan letting Matt go irretrievably into space.

Designing Principle: A middle-aged space engineer learns to appreciate life again and believe in herself after a series of narrow escapes in space.

Theme Line: When you feel all alone and about to give up, fortify yourself by finding some imaginary person to give yourself some comfort.

Story World: Floating around in space

Symbol Line: ‘Tethered’ (grounded) versus being ‘untethered’ (lost and all alone, with nothing to hold onto).

Mooshing The Science

See: Getting Science Right In Film: It’s Not The Facts, Folks

This is a good example of a SF story in which the writers hired a science advisor, then picked and chose which parts of actual science would help and which would hinder their storytelling. They ended up with a film which can really annoy scientifically literate fans of mimesis, but for viewers who are able to suspend disbelief, and who enjoy predictable plots, this is a well-crafted sci-fi thriller with a satisfying character arc.

Gravity hair

The writers of Gravity seem to be following the advice to ‘dazzle the audience with pyrotechnics’ as a way of hiding the improbabilities, which Michael Hauge offers as one screenwriting technique in his article on how to create believable stories, but as he says himself, ‘This is definitely the last resort solution to the problem of credibility.’

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Planes Trains and Automobiles

Planes Trains Automobiles Movie Poster

Planes, Trains & Automobiles is a thanksgiving comedy from 1987. The film has been given an R rating — not, as I expected, because of the pillow scene, but because of the cussy airport scene.

Planes Trains Automobiles Steve Martin angry

[Hughes] is not often cited for greatness, although some of his titles, like “The Breakfast Club,” “Weird Science,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Home Alone,” have fervent admirers. What can be said for him is that he usually produces a real story about people he has clear ideas about; his many teenage comedies, for example, are miles more inventive than [more] recent sex-and-prom sagas.

— Roger Ebert

Like John Candy, John Hughes also died young of a heart attack.
Like John Candy, John Hughes also died young of a heart attack.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a very much a movie of the 80s, and the reuniting scene at the end with the tearful wife is a bit eye-rolly to me, but the comedy is still relevant today: If anything, more of us are travelling more often and can relate well to travel delays next to annoying co-passengers.

Good stories don’t need to be complex. E.T. is another example of a film which has a simple story line but which was very popular in the 1980s.

The movies that last, the ones we return to, don’t always have lofty themes or Byzantine complexities. Sometimes they last because they are arrows straight to the heart.

— Roger Ebert

Planes, Trains and Automobiles probably works because the holiday itself is not the main action. Instead, we see a man who learns the ‘true meaning of Thanksgiving’. The holiday itself is simply the ticking-clock.

Ticking clocks are often used in other genres such as thrillers and action movies, but the device is also used (less commonly) in comedy journey stories. As Truby writes, ‘any journey story is inherently fragmented and meandering. A comic journey makes the story even more fragmented because the forward narrative drive stops every time you do some comic business. Jokes and gags almost always take the story sideways; the story waits while a character is dropped or diminished in some way. By telling the audience up front that there is a specific time endpoint to the story, you give them a forward line they can hang on to through all the meandering. Instead of getting impatient to know what comes next, they relax and enjoy the comic moments along the way. Other examples of this can be found in The Blues Brothers and Jacques Tati’s Traffic‘.

‘TRAPPED!’

Public transport is the ideal setting for a narrative because when you’ve got a main character and a main opponent, you have to find a way, as writer, to force them together into the same space. Howard Suber, in The Power of Film, wrote that almost every popular film could be justifiably called Trapped. In Planes, Trains and Automobiles we have a well-off white guy, who is basically living The American Dream, except he is trapped first in his workplace as his boss hems and haws in a board meeting, then we see him trapped in a variety of locations as his transportation continues to let him down.

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