An important idea in the film “Little Miss Sunshine” directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris is the idea that being a winner is more about perseverance and having fun than coming first place and always succeeding. A key character in the film is Richard Hoover, who portrays the development of this idea through his dialogue, costume and camera angles. Initially as defined by Richard, the world is split into only two types of people, “winners and losers”. Richard’s opening shot shows a middle-aged man orating to an audience, with a large projector behind him showing ‘the 9 steps’.
The low angle establishing shots make him look like a man of importance, but ironically, once his speech has ended we realize he is speaking not to a large crowd of people, but a near empty classroom, with only 10 people. While there is a slight feeling of pity it also brings a note of humor to the speech as Richard who was portrayed as the ‘winner’ of the scene is now revealed to be more of a loser. The opening line of the film is “There are two types of people in this world, winners and losers” indicating to the viewer that the idea of what makes someone a winner will be dominant throughout the film.
The statement is also used as a voice-over for the films first scene, where Olive is practicing winning a beauty pageant. Through this the audience quickly connects that Richard’s view of success has greatly influenced his daughter’s, as she practices her ‘winning’ face. The opening scene has been carefully chosen by the Dayton and Faris as a way to communicate to the audience that Richard’s perspective on winners will be a significant theme throughout the film. Richards’s obsession with winning and how he pushes this onto others is again witnessed as he manipulates Olive into not eating ice cream.
When the slightly chubby Olive chooses Waffles and ice cream for breakfast, Richard implies that fatty foods and beauty pageants cannot co-exist. His careful choice of words “Have you ever seen a fat beauty pageant winner? ” show him using Olive’s ambitions to dictate her behavior. He knows she cares deeply about this, and takes advantage of it. The Hoovers reaction to Richard is subtle but vital suggesting to the viewer that when people reach this level of obsession with victory it is no longer appropriate. As in this scene, Richard is shown in a close up of his face.
However, when Dwayne, Grandpa and Frank try to get Olive to eat ice cream, they are shown with a mid-shot, displaying their cohesion when trying to cheer up Olive. This group shot further enforces Richard’s separation from the group, illustrating how the family is starting to realize that Richard’s attitude is no longer acceptable. The next important scene is were the audience finally sees Richard at his lowest point, and how he has invested so much of his life into the 9 steps that he cant bear to move on. When Richard is confronted with Sheryl screaming “Fuck the 9 steps Richard…I never want to hear the nine steps again!
” he realizes that the foundation of his life might all be crap. Richard urgently hunts down Stan, his ex-business partner, but is met with further rejection. Richard is unable to accept that Stan has moved on, replying, “You mean give up? One set back, you’re ready to quit”. This scene is important for displaying the theme of what makes someone a winner because it fully encompasses the fact that Richard has become so consumed with compartmentalizing the world into winners and loser, he can no longer see the difference between giving up and just moving on.
Costume was also used in this scene to fully emphasize the contrast between Stan Grossman (the winner) who wore an expensive suit, and Richard (the loser), who has on trainers, kaki pants and a cheap polo shirt. When Richard’s father dies, we see an important shift towards the idea of participation relating to winners. The directors have chosen this moment for this idea of what makes a winner to take a significant shift as the audience can see that the grief of losing his father causes Richard change his view on success as he learns to appreciate family.
Choosing between abiding by the law (remaining with the body at the hospital) or supporting his daughter, makes him realize that coming first doesn’t always make you a winner. “If there’s one thing my father would have wanted it’s to see Olive perform in the LMS pageant. ” This dialogue shows how Richard has developed, realizing that winning is more about determination and taking part, than first place. Winners are now seen as people that “don’t give up. ” He sees that it wasn’t about Olive coming first for Grandpa, it was about her taking part.
Finally the family makes it to the pageant but things start to take turn for the worse when Richard sees the rest of the competition. His expression goes from one of pride and excitement to a look of surprise and worry with and his mouth agape as it gradually dawns on him that the whole point of the trip (winning the Pageant) is no longer a reality as the other contestants are obviously much more experienced and competitive. Richard then rushes into the changing rooms to hurriedly tell Sheryl “I don’t want her to go on”.
This shows that he still believes that it is better to avoid being a loser by not participating than to try and have fun with the risk of not winning. Although the audience can tell by Richards ashamed face, and avoidance of eye contact with Sheryl that he is somewhat embarrassed about having this feeling. This attitude is directly contrasted to the advice that Grandpa gave to Olive “A real loser is someone so afraid of losing that they don’t try at all”. The final scene where we finally see the idea that winning is more about perseverance and having fun than coming first is when Olive performs her dance routine.
In this scene Richard finally understands what being a winner is really all about and instead of telling Olive to stop dancing he instead takes part jumping on stage and validating Olives choice to take part by copying her movements, regardless of if they are going to win. This is when he realizes that participating because you enjoy it is also a lot more fun, smiling and laughing as his family takes the stage, skipping in circles and whooping. This final scene fully conveys to the audience the joy and fulfillment you can gain if you leave your inhibitions behind and have fun by following your passions
In conclusion an important Idea in Little Miss Sunshine was displayed through the use of Richard, a main character, coupled with various cinematic techniques such as dialogue, camera angles and costume. This helped to show how initially in the Hoover household a winner was someone who always came first and put their goals before everything else, even family. But gradually as the film progressed they came to realize that striving for first place is an unfulfilling goal but being a true winner is someone who has the perseverance to take part and have fun, regardless of how what others say.
“Little Miss Sunshine”: Winning, Losing, and Story Themes
Stories should be about something. As a reminder, here is screenwriter Michale Arndt talking about the central theme in his film Little Miss Sunshine:
Here is an excerpt from the video clip:
“One of the things that was an impetus to write the script was I remember reading this interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger… where he was talking to a group of high school students… and he said, ‘If there’s one thing in this world I hate, it’s losers. I despise them.’ And I thought there’s something so wrong with that attitude… something so demeaning and insulting as referring to any other person as a loser… I wanted to attack that idea, that in life you’re either go up or you’re going down… A child beauty pageant is the ultimate in stupid meaningless competition.”
And so armed with all that, Arndt went off and wrote one of the best character-based comedies in the last decade.
In my view, while Olive is the story’s central character in driving the plot — it’s her goal of appearing in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant that creates the spine of the plot — the Chief Protagonist is Richard (her father) with Secondary Protagonists Frank and Dwayne, each of whom is dealing with this issue: Winner, Loser.
Richard: A motivational speaker who is failing in life.
Frank: One of the world’s experts on Marcel Proust who has lost his lover, his teaching job, and almost his life through a failed suicide attempt.
Dwayne: He so loathes his family, thinking of them as losers, that he has committed himself not to say a word until he can become a pilot, symbolically getting as far away from his current crap situation as possible.
So broadly speaking, the story takes the Protagonists from this starting point:
Richard: There are two kinds of people in this world, winners and losers. [Which is the very first line of the movie].
To this ending point:
Dwayne: You do what you love, and fuck the rest.
In my view, theme is about the emotional meaning of a story.
And that is one reason why LMS works so well: Clearly Arndt felt passionate about exploring this theme — winning, losing. It’s not just some intellectual exercise for him, but something personal, human, affective. That comes through with every character, every subplot, every scene.
A story has to be about something and we typically call that its theme. But the best stories have thematic elements that connect to a reader or viewer’s very soul, they should feel the themes, not just think them.
Let’s use this as an opportunity to discuss, analyze and praise this little gem of a movie Little Miss Sunshine.