When it debuted 10 years ago today, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Little Miss Sunshine was quickly embraced by critics and audiences as an offbeat, quirky comedy about a dysfunctional family. It was then just as quickly dismissed as a terminally twee collection of indie movie clichés and somewhat forgotten. But maybe, this overachieving little film has something of value to say about winning and losing, especially in a year that will see both a nasty presidential election as well as the Olympic games in Rio. U.K. YouTuber Ryan Hollinger has devoted an episode of his web series, Ryan’s Theory, to Little Miss Sunshine and its message of being happy with one’s self.
Hollinger begins his video essay with some stand-up comedy from Jerry Seinfeld, who talks about the shame and disgrace of winning a silver medal. “You’re the number one loser,” he declares. Cut to real estate mogul Donald Trump, who boasts, “We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning.” So is the world really the way Seinfeld and Trump see it, a place where there are only two kinds of people, a small handful of winners and a multitude of losers? Little Miss Sunshine doesn’t think so.
The film revolves around young Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin), a girl who travels with her family to compete in a child beauty pageant and who longs to emulate the perfect-seeming women she sees on television. Traveling with her are the deeply flawed and troubled members of her family, including her suicidal uncle Frank (Steve Carell) and her drug-taking grandfather Edwin (Alan Arkin). Olive’s father, Richard (Greg Kinnear), is a would-be self-help guru whose rhetoric about winning and losing is really not that far from what Trump has been saying on the campaign trail this year. Only Richard can’t seem to find an audience for his message.
None of the characters in Little Miss Sunshine would qualify as winners by most people’s objective standards, and they are not rewarded with any kind of conventional success at the end of the film. If they had been, Hollinger argues, they would have learned nothing from their experiences. What matters is that they become more accepting of themselves and of each other. In a cutthroat year like 2016, that’s an important message to keep in mind.