God Save the Freak
Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, 2006)
By Vicky Luzón
The cherished myth of the picture-perfect family, a staple of Hollywood production, was particularly powerful during the 1980s and 1990s, a time when the contested terrain of family values was top of the political agenda in the U.S. These nostalgic renditions of the family were a clear reflection of broader socio-political discourses seeking to impose rigid versions of the family as an antidote to perceived social problems. The battle for the family, which US liberals clearly lost during the past decade, gave rise to the marginalisation of dysfunctional families that did not seem to fit the normative (i.e., heterosexual, middle class) Conservative model. In this context, working mothers, single mothers, homosexual parents, etc. were all coded as dysfunctional and therefore pernicious to society. It was then that popular TV shows such as The Cosby Show or Roseanne articulated different points of view on the matter, even though the comedy framework neutralised the social criticism contained in the latter. In more recent times there has been a further revision of this myth. The mainstream success of Sam Mendes melodrama American Beauty (1999) highlighted the dark side of perfection, while Todd Solondzs Happiness (1998) revealed its sordid side. Meanwhile, successful TV series such as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under or even Desperate Housewives, have contributed in various ways to the erosion of the myth. Little Miss Sunshine, winner of the 2006 Audience Award in the San Sebastian Film Festival, is a new addition to the list.
This independent film is a road movie which includes the usual cliché of the journey of self-discovery and in search of lost time as Proust would put it, but by making a whole family its protagonist introduces a newish element, since the trope had already been explored in Flirting with Disaster (1996). Road movies are usually populated by individuals whose interaction with others encourages them to appreciate life differently. Large groups or families, and hence vans, are portrayed more rarely. The yellow van is a good metaphor for this dysfunctional family. It is an old VW van typical of the 1960s and 1970s, a time when the Conservative ideal of perfection had not yet taken hold, and so other, less than perfect, alternatives were still possible. In addition the van has a gear box, and you can only start it in third gear, which suggests that skill, enthusiasm and mutual collaboration is needed in order to drive it. In other words, this is not a van, or a family, that can easily run on automatic. The van is also falling to pieces, as is the family, which is almost on the verge of a breakdown, as the publicity explains, echoing Almodóvars Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). Almodóvar seems to be a reference in this films continuous intercutting of comic and tragic moments, when everyone is required to pretend to be normal. Meanwhile, the films colour saturation scheme seems to pay yet again homage to the famous Spanish director, and to the other famous Little Miss Sunshine, the cartoon one.
These two references point towards a light-hearted parody of normal family life, but the moments of pathos in the film also bring us back to grimmer realities and make the whole watching experience closer to the audience. It is easy to identify with the family, even though they are all presented as a bunch of losers: the father is a struggling writer obsessed with success in 9 steps, the mother a stressed out divorcee, which to her son constitutes failure, the uncle an intellectual who has just tried to commit suicide like his admired Proust, the teenage son has made a silence vow but nevertheless reads Nietzsches Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the grandfather a self-confessed drug addict who was expelled from his nursing home, while the little daughter, Olive, seems to be the most normal member of the family. Her time is yet to come, it seems. It is Olives chance to win the Little Miss Sunshine competition, fuelled by her fathers obsession with success, that takes the whole family on a journey to California. The competition is also the excuse the directors use to criticise their societys obsession with success, which materialises in beauty pageants for small girls or spelling bee competitions, a topic recently explored in the film Bee Season (2005), but also in countless examples of self-help and self-improvement literature or mantras, which have also been the target of parody elsewhere.
The culmination of the film is of course the beauty pageant, and Olives performance, which comes as a real surprise even though she has been rehearsing with her grandfather throughout the film. Yet, the weird performance comes to highlight the dubious nature of such competitions and the dubious moral standards of the success-driven parents who encourage their children to take part, a point that has been the subject of hot debates in the U.S. ever since the murder of beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, who was described as a painted baby, a sexualized toddler beauty queen, almost 10 years ago.
In another sense, the performance also serves to vindicate normality, as embodied by this family of freaks, who by the end of the film have no real intention of pretending to be normal and parading themselves or their daughter as embodiments of perfection. They are imperfect people with problems, like the rest of humans. In American Beauty Jane yells at phoney Angela in a moment of rage and says of herself and Ricky: well always be freaks and well never be like other people and youll never be a freak because youre just too... perfect! Little Miss Sunshine seems to be making the same kind of statement. We are freaks, so what?
Finally, Little Miss Sunshine echoes Conservative discourses vindicating the power of the family to heal our wounds. What makes the film different, it seems to me, is that it never attempts to hide the familys imperfections and, most importantly, it does never for a moment suggest that imperfect families are breeding grounds for sociopaths or social problems more generally. After all, this family seems to meet the traditional nuclear family pattern (working dad, homemaking mum), but what a surprise when we look closer, as American Beautys tagline invited us to do. Maybe the answer is in teenage Dwaynes philosophical reading: when God is gone, it is in the little things in life, such as our imperfect families, that social malaise can be cured.