Ben used to wear a shiny yellow clip on one side of his head and a whale spout of a pigtail on the other. He called it “dress-up hair.” His preschool teacher complimented Tony and me on “letting” Ben express himself so freely, but I shrugged it off, thinking, if a three year-old San Francisco boy can’t wear hair accessories, then who can? Sure, we got some funny looks at the grocery store, but they were far outnumbered by the smiles his hair-do inspired.
I was a little sad when Ben abandoned dress-up hair, though of course it saved me having to call an end to it myself. Sometimes I wondered when — or if — I would. If he still wore a hair clip at age five, no problem. But at six? Seven? Could I still shrug it off, or would I, even at the expense of his self-expression, try to protect my quirky boy from the funny looks?
Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2006) opens with its own funny look: a close-up of a little girl’s eyes, wide behind big round glasses, staring at the Miss America pageant on television. She watches, rapt, as the winner is crowned; she mimics Miss America bringing her hands up to either side of the lipsticked O of her mouth. The little girl, wearing long braids and play clothes, rewinds, starts it again, then pauses, looking hard to get the move just right.
Looking is at the heart of Little Miss Sunshine, a dark comedy about a family of strivers, individuals working hard to be more than they appear. In an ensemble of pitch-perfect performances, Nietzsche-obsessed teenage Dwayne (Paul Dano) wants to be a fighter pilot; dad Richard (Greg Kinnear), hopes for success as a motivational speaker. The kids’ devoted (porn-reading, heroin-snorting) grandpa Ed (Alan Arkin) has moved in after getting kicked out of a retirement home, while Steve Carrell’s Uncle Frank, “America’s preeminent Proust scholar,” is recovering from a suicide attempt. Mom Sheryl (Toni Collette), focusing pragmatically on the most immediate problem, wants only to find the cheapest route to Los Angeles so that young Olive (the incomparable Abigail Breslin) can participate in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant.
The family takes to the highway and so the film joins a venerable tradition of road movies. From Judy Garland and friends in The Wizard of Oz to Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, viewers love to watch mismatched folks sort out their problems on a journey. Little Miss Sunshine gives us all the elements of family life (boredom, humor, peace, farce, irritation, joy) stuffed into an ancient VW bus. The filmmakers offer periodic long shots of the beat-up vehicle, small against the backdrop of the big West, as it motors down the road; these shots take us away from this particular family and allow us to see ourselves — we’ve all been stuck in cars with our families — in their place. The VW needs push starts and this family does, too. One by one, they’ve watched their dreams fade on the journey. Meanwhile little Olive, headphones on to absorb her routine’s music, bobs her head sweetly oblivious to the drama around her; only she can still see her dream within view. We’re rooting hard for her to get to the pageant on time.
But of course the pageant is awful. We’ve already seen Olive doesn’t have the right look. She’s still soft with baby fat, a good kid who orders a waffle with chocolate ice cream for breakfast one morning, careful to stay within the family’s $4 per person budget. Backstage at the pageant, she’s thrust into a maelstrom of spray tans and hairspray as the multiethnic baby Barbies ready themselves for the stage. Olive is the only one who still looks like a little girl.
The mother lion impulse compels Olive’s brother and dad, who’ve watched the opening acts, to insist that Sheryl pull Olive out of the pageant. “You’re the mom, and you’re supposed to protect her,” Dwayne insists. But Sheryl, no pushy stage-mother, just a typical mom whose desires come second to those of her family, disagrees about how best to nurture their youngest: “We have to let Olive be Olive.”
The film asks, how do we protect our kids? We hope movie ratings and internet filters will protect what they see, but can we protect how they’re seen? Ben abandoned dress-up hair before it became an issue and I’ll likely never have to shepherd my boys through beauty pageants. But school plays, soccer matches, and spelling bees loom on the horizon. I hope Tony and I can help our boys develop a strong interior point of view, so no matter how other people see them, they see themselves as the funny, vibrant kids they are.
Olive, to her credit, sees herself as her family does. She looks wise beyond her years as she decisively snaps off those big round glasses, and then, a little girl still, leaves the dressing room holding hands. She meets her family on stage where, unconcerned with how they’re viewed, they look at each other, laugh, and dance.