Little Miss Sunshine is a 2006 American comedy-drama film. The road movie plot follows a family’s trip to a children’s beauty pageant.
Little Miss Sunshine was the directorial film debut of the husband-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. The screenplay was written by first-time writer Michael Arndt. The movie stars Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, and Alan Arkin, and was produced by Big Beach Films on a budget of US$8 million. Filming began on June 6, 2005 and took place over 30 days in Arizona and Southern California.
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 20, 2006, and its distribution rights were bought by Fox Searchlight Pictures for one of the biggest deals made in the history of the festival. The film had a limited release in the United States on July 26, 2006, and later expanded to a wider release starting on August 18.
Little Miss Sunshine received critical acclaim and had an international box office gross of $100.5 million. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won two: Best Original Screenplay for Michael Arndt and Best Supporting Actor for Alan Arkin. It also won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Feature and received numerous other accolades.
Sheryl Hoover (Toni Collette) is an overworked mother of two children who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her brother Frank (Steve Carell) is a gay scholar of French author Marcel Proust, temporarily living at home with the family after a suicide attempt. Her husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) is striving to build a career as a motivational speaker and life coach. Dwayne (Paul Dano), Sheryl’s son from a previous marriage, is an unhappy teenager who has taken a vow of silence until he can accomplish his dream of getting into the US Air Force Academy in order to become a test pilot. Richard’s foul-mouthed father, Edwin (Alan Arkin), a World War II veteran recently evicted from a retirement home for using and selling heroin, lives with the family. He is close with his seven-year-old granddaughter, Olive (Abigail Breslin).
When Olive learns she has qualified for the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty contest that is being held in Redondo Beach, California in two days, she is ecstatic. However, money is tight and due to various logistical issues, the only way to make the trip is if the entire household goes. Despite Richard, Dwayne, and Frank in particular not wanting to go, they all band together to support Olive and embark upon the 800-mile (1,287-km) road trip in their ancient yellow Volkswagen T2 Microbus.
Family tensions play out during the journey, amidst the aging van’s increasingly troublesome mechanical problems. When the van’s clutch breaks early in the trip, the family discovers that they must push the van until it reaches 20 miles per hour and then run and jump in. Later, the horn starts honking unceasingly, resulting in the family getting pulled over.
Throughout the road trip, the family suffers numerous personal setbacks, and discover their need for each other’s support. Richard loses an important contract that would have jump-started his motivational business and saved the family from financial ruin. Frank encounters the ex-boyfriend who, in leaving him for Frank’s chief academic rival (who has also just received a MacArthur Grant), precipitated his suicide attempt. Edwin dies from an apparent heroin overdose. In order to reach their destination in time, the family smuggles his body out of the hospital, (illegally transporting it across state lines in the process), planning to make funeral arrangements after the pageant. During the final stretch of the trip, Dwayne discovers that he is color blind, and therefore can never get a pilot’s license, which prompts Dwayne to break his silence and throw a tantrum, refusing to continue with the trip and revealing his anger and disdain for his family. He storms from the van in tears, but is calmed down by a hug from Olive and returns to the family.
After a frantic race against the clock, Olive is almost refused entrance to the pageant for arriving at the hotel four minutes late. As she gets ready, the family observes the other competitors: slender, sexualized little girls with highly styled hair, heavily made-up faces, spray tans, adult-like sexy swimsuits, and glamorous evening wear, performing highly elaborate dance, musical, and gymnastic routines with great panache. It quickly becomes apparent that Olive (plain, pale, slightly chubby, with unstyled hair, wearing large eyeglasses, and untrained in beauty pageant conventions) is not in their league.
As Olive’s turn to perform in the talent portion of the pageant draws near, Richard and Dwayne recognize that Olive is certain to be humiliated and, wanting to spare her feelings, run to the dressing room to prevent her from performing. Sheryl, however, insists that they “let Olive be Olive”, and Olive decides to go on stage. She joyfully performs the dance routine that her Grandpa Edwin had secretly choreographed for her: a burlesque performance to Rick James’ song “Super Freak”, innocently oblivious to the scandalized and horrified reaction of the audience. The organizers are enraged and demand Sheryl and Richard remove Olive from the stage. Instead, one by one the members of the family join Olive on stage, dancing alongside her, and Richard prevents pageant officials from touching his daughter.
The family is next seen outside the hotel’s security office where a police officer tells them that they are free to leave as long as Olive never again enters a beauty pageant in the state of California. Richard tells Olive that her grandfather would be very proud of her, and the family happily piles into the ramshackle bus and heads back to their home in Albuquerque.