Have you seen the movie, Little Miss Sunshine? Oh, you should, if you haven’t. Congratulations, if you have. It’s in color. And it’s executed in a modern or post modern sort of an acting style. Cinematic style. Released in 2006. It trades on the idiom of familial ambiguity and brokenness and heterogeneity.
It uses divorce and homosexuality as cultural markers. It is current, in other words. It is not old-fashioned. It is not melodramatic. It may be a bit pedantic. A bit homiletic. But because we are not in church when we watch it—at least most of us aren’t—and there is no churchy idiom pushed, we don’t think of it immediately as Scriptural or religious or Jesusy or anything like that.
Oh, and it isn’t pretentious. It doesn’t seem to puff itself up. It’s quotidian. It feels almost disposable. The subject is modest—a family’s trip to a beauty pageant of sorts—the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant, two states to the left. There’s physical humor and a dirty old man, which both camouflage the homiletics. Both send us in the other direction. So misdirection is also one of its techniques.
It opens on a family assembling for dinner, a dinner of Kentucky Fried Chicken and frozen popsicles. The exposition is admirably and economically done in the dialog and the visual effects in the preceding scene and in this one.
Turns out the mother—Sheryl—is overworked, underappreciated, and irritated with her husband—Richard—for not bringing home a paycheck for an extended period of time while he has worked on a self-help manuscript and motivational spiel that are both based on the profound philosophical idea that the world is divided into winners and losers. Further, he has worked out a formula so that anyone who studies his several step program can turn himself or herself into—wonder of wonders—a winner!
At the table also is Sheryl’s homosexual brother, Frank, who considers himself the world’s foremost Proust scholar. The number one expert on Proust. He has just tried to kill himself because the successful rival for Frank’s lover’s affections—the number two Proust scholar in the world, according to Frank—has just received a prestigious award that should have been Frank's. According to Frank.
Then there is Dwayne, Sheryl’s teenage son by a previous marriage, who is reading Nietzsche and who hasn’t spoken for seven or eight months because he hates his family and wants to be an Air Force fighter pilot. He will not speak until he has achieved a significant milestone in becoming an Air Force fighter pilot.
Then there is Edwin, Richard’s foul-mouthed father, who has just been kicked out of an old folks home for irremediably snorting heroin. And finally there is Olive, Sheryl’s and Richard’s (approximately) eight year old daughter, who is a bit on the wide side and wears glasses that make her look a like a midget clown. And who has just found out that she has won a spot in the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant to be held shortly in California, two states to the left.
The family reluctantly piles into a decrepit Volkswagen minibus, the sort of vehicle that was popular back in the late 1960s (and that is, itself, almost familial to many of us in the vicinity of 60) and that shortly develops a clutch problem that requires just about everyone to push the vehicle to get it going. Everyone is irritated with everyone else, except Olive, who is quite pleased to be on her way to nirvana or heaven or someplace quite close to these, a place of beauty and fame and happiness. But as the trip unfolds, it turns out that everyone, except Olive, falls short of perfection. Edwin falls so far short, that he ends up dead from a heroin overdose.
Through a series of personal growth moments in which everyone, except Olive, comes to terms with his or her own imperfections, this unpretentious American westwarding road trip proves both actual and metaphorical as well as moral and funny. At the beauty pageant itself, perfection is what almost everyone—little girls and parents—is striving for. But Olive’s routine—choreographed and designed by the now dead Edwin—turns out to be more burlesque than perfect. Olive is joined by her family onstage as the audience of parents and the pageant’s organizers and operators makes outraged noises and gestures. It is a lovely and humorous moment.
So this post modern travelog takes the Hoover family from dislike, irritation, judgment, striving, dysfunction, disorder, and unhappiness, to love, acceptance, purpose, order, and joy through several individual discoveries along the way. Each of them discovers that while perfection is not likely, imperfection is infinitely better. Because imperfection of course requires and implies love.
Now this isn’t what I would call great cinematic art. But it is modestly fine. And while. As I say. It is a bit homiletic. It is nevertheless true. It takes us on something of a journey also and discovers something in us that is beyond selfishness, despair, and death. That may actually be the infinite promise of love.
At the end, the family is restored. Right relationship is discovered and established and affirmed. And everyone has a rousing good time thumbing their noses at the stuck-up worshippers of perfection: the little girl contestants with their capped teeth, perfect hair, sprayed on tans, and highly practiced and skilled song and dance routines, along with all of those who are their teachers.
The ending reestablishes God’s own order. God’s own irreverence for the ideas and practices and dysfunctions of the world. The ambitious, achievement-oriented world. It reaffirms God’s own idea. That love—and nothing else—has the capacity to lift us out of our selfishness and our sin and our death. That love vanquishes perfection always.
And so, one might almost think of this loony family as God’s own disciples traveling out to the hinterlands to present the uninformed with the Good News. The Good News of salvation through love. And in fact, at the little “Miss Sunshine Pageant,” at least two people are converted. Or if not converted, they do at least cheer Olive and her family on. Just as we gratefully and thankfully do also.