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Losers Make Winners in Little Miss Sunshine

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Dedication, success, and prosperity are three words that embody every American’s dream of personal affluence. The film, Little Miss Sunshine, directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, serves as the antithesis of this dream, where a dysfunctional family must manage their own hopes and aspirations in a society driven to succeed. This darkly comedic film serves as a satirical criticism of the American Dream, detailing the lost hope of a generation, exposing the flaws of society today, and advocating a “loser” status above artificiality.

Hope pervades the family as each member has his or her own goals they hope to achieve. Richard, the bankrupt father, is a motivational speaker, preaching the “9 steps to success”. He is enraptured, disillusioned, and misguided by his dreams of getting rich quick. Dwayne, the lackadaisical and cynical son who “hates everyone”, is also strangely entangled within his own goals of becoming a pilot in the Air force. He has taken a “vow of silence until he reaches his goal,” but is later jolted when he realizes that is colorblind, shattering his dream. Grandpa, on the other hand, is a pleasure-seeker who defines his own American dream as eternal happiness, fantasizing about women and snorting heroin whenever he gets the chance. Sheryl, the “pro-honesty” mother, strains herself to keep the family together, trying to establish a better life for Dwayne and Olive.
Plagued by her family’s troubles, Sheryl struggles to maintain her family’s secrets. Frank, the suicidal, homosexual uncle, has his own problems to deal with, as he tries to reassert his position as “the preeminent Proust scholar of the US” and must deal with his emotions after being jilted by his gay lover. He is the first character in the movie to realize the after effects of the American dream when he “failed at that as well”. Finally, there is Olive: the seven-year old girl who idolizes Miss America women and dreams of her own celebrity stardom. Each character has an ostensible, yet varied interpretation of the American experience; however, the family comes together in order to pursue one—Olive’s dream.

As the family traverses the states from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to California, to pursue Olive’s dreams, the journey means more than the ends. From suicide to conformity to death, the hilarious times of Olive’s family touches on serious subject matters present today. The directors of the film make a point to emphasize the issues that plague the American society, citing philosopher Proust in order to express the idea that the implications of pursuing the American Dream can be “a total waste” and that “all those years suffered, those were the best years of his life, cause they made him who he was”. It is also interesting to note that Dwayne’s idol, Nietzsche, advocated tragedy as a means to affirm life. The directors adeptly utilize various cinematic techniques such as music and costumes, purposefully including minute details in the film that hint at a much larger thematic statement. Each character within this dysfunctional family has major foibles that underscore a separate problem. Richard—bankruptcy and hypocrisy. Frank—suicide. Dwayne—teenage angst. Sheryl—divorce. Grandpa—drug abuse and death. Olive—self-image and conformity.
One character to highlight, in particular, is Richard, the father, “who took a big chance” by trying to sell his “9 steps to success”. A boldly ironic character, Richard, fanatically follows his methods, yet in the end he himself becomes a “loser”. The deal with Stan Grossman falls through as Richard struggles to hang onto the last bare threads of his dreams of success, preaching that “winners never give up” when grandpa dies. The time to “move on” slaps Richard in the face as he comes face to face with reality. Brainwashed by the American society, Richard tries to impose conformity upon Olive, mentioning that if Olive “eats a lot of ice cream” she may “become fat”. The movie reaches a pivotal point when Richard joins Olive on stage, repudiating all of society’s values for the individuality of his own daughter.
This final push signifies that Richard has finally disillusioned himself with society and has come to “let Olive be Olive!” The directors project that being a “loser” today can have it’s own benefits; individuality allows for personal freedom without burden and denounces the perverted obsession that Americans have with those who are beautiful, successful, or happy. Olive, at such a young age, is already starting to feel pressure from society. She starts to suck in her stomach and is much more conscious about her image, admitting that she thinks “daddy hates losers”.
In the end though, in an act of familial love, the family rallies behind Olive’s American dream, each one dancing on stage as a mockery of the whole pageant and what it symbolizes. Dwayne, disgusted by the competition, realizes that life is “just one beauty contest after another” and demands that his mother “protects [Olive]”. Unafraid of what others might think, the whole family comes together in this climactic scene to celebrate themselves and their own idiosyncrasies. Finally, the family drives off into the distance, at the conclusion of the film, knowing that no matter how different each person is and how unrealistic a person’s dreams may be, that everything will be okay in the end. The family returns to “normal” after the end of the pageant.
Whether Richard truly becomes rich in the end or Dwayne learns to fly in the end is unknown; however, it is obvious that this journey has changed the lives of this anomaly of a family. The film humorously condemns the values that have so thoroughly seeped into our American culture. Defining their own limits to their dreams, each family member discovers that they are truly actually “winners” within a chaotic world.





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