Good Day Sunshine

January 28, 2007Posted by Jay Livingston
An extended family in the Southwest, hard pressed by economic and personal problems, gets in their ramshackle old vehicle and sets off for California, where they hope for some kind of success. Along the way, their vehicle breaks down, the grandfather dies, and they suffer other setbacks. But most of the people they meet along the way are eventually sympathetic and helpful, though the agents of the business world are not so kind. In the end, when they do get to California, they discover that it’s not the answer to all their dreams.

All of which is to say that I rented “Little Miss Sunshine” this weekend.

I don’t think the writer and directors of “Little Miss Sunshine” had “The Grapes of Wrath” in mind when they made the movie. Or maybe they did. After all, the family in “Little Miss Sunshine” is named Hoover, with its echoes of the depression and the Hoovervilles the Joads pass through. In any case, the parallels are there to be seen, even though the two films are very different in tone.

Like “The Grapes of Wrath” made 65 years earlier, “Little Miss Sunshine” takes a critical look at America. But while to many American “Grapes of Wrath” was a revelation in its depiction of the realities of economic hardship and the mistreatment of farm workers, “Little Miss Sunshine” takes on aspects of the culture that we already know about. It’s poking fun at— and poking holes in— some of our most cherished ideas, particularly those embodied in the father’s nine-step motivational program for success. The movie is an antidote to all those films and real life programs that preach the American gospel of optimism, hard work, and success. It’s a comedy, but there are few jokes or wisecracks. It’s a satire.

We can’t really dislike the father, but the movie makes us root for him to give up his view of the world, a view that sees everything in terms of winners and losers. We’re almost happy when he fails to sell his “Refuse to Lose” idea. In fact, the losers in the family are the people we are drawn to — the teenager who hasn’t spoken in months, the suicidal uncle who has lost out in (gay) love and in academics to another Proust scholar, the lecherous grandfather banished from a retirement community because he was caught snorting heroin, and the slightly chubby little girl who will never achieve her dream of winning a beauty pageant.

In the formula Hollywood film, the little girl would practice hard. The other girls in the pageant would be experienced, with the advantages of wealthier parents, fancier costumes, and professional coaches. Maybe one of them would even cheat. But our little girl would outshine them all, just like Rocky, The Karate Kid, or any of a host of others. And the success in the contest would then flow into all other aspects of her life.

But imagine Rocky or Karate Kid making a mockery of the match itself, then turning his back on it and saying, “You know, a contest like that— winning or losing it — is a pretty stupid thing to base yourself and your world on.”

Which is what “Little Miss Sunshine” does. When the silent teen finally does speak, he speaks for the film, and this is what he says: “Fuck beauty contests. Life is one fucking beauty contest after another. School, then college, then work . . . .”