“There are two kinds of people in this world: winners and losers.”
This film has been featured in an episode of my podcast about movies and mental health, Peculiar Picture Show!
In modern society, there’s a lot of emphasis placed on winning, while failing is an uncomfortable subject we don’t talk much about. That’s something Little Miss Sunshine tries to remedy. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Ruby Sparks and many music videos) and starring Steve Carell, Toni Collette, and Greg Kinnear, this is a movie that says a lot about failure by talking about success. The point it makes is not heavy-handed or forced—in fact, it’s understated and quite entertaining. At its core, it’s a comedy with some dramatic elements that lets us know it’s alright to fall down from time to time.
The movie opens on a sad note as Sheryl picks up her brother Frank from the hospital after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. After getting him home to stay with her family, we find out Sheryl’s daughter Olive has unexpectedly been accepted to the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant—something she is wildly unprepared for, having only competed in one pageant before. The family sets off on a two-day road trip to get Olive to the pageant. Sheryl’s husband, Richard, is an aspiring motivational speaker whose anti-loser beliefs put him at odds with the entire family, so there’s plenty of tension along the way.
He gets down to the end of his life, and he looks back and decides that all those years he suffered—those were the best years of his life, ‘cause they made him who he was. All those years he was happy? You know, total waste. Didn’t learn a thing.
The movie is at times gravely serious, but still frequently hilarious. The humor stems from a blatant rejection of irresponsible optimism and an overreaching positive psychology that Richard is trying (unsuccessfully) to sell. The correlation (or lack thereof) between success and happiness seems to be the crux of the film. Much like the movie’s Frank Ginsberg, I have some pretty severe depression, so I’ve made the same realization he did shortly before the events of the film: success is no guarantee of happiness. Each of the main characters ultimately has to learn to be happy whether they get what they want or not, and each of them has to confront their own failure and learn how to embrace it.
The core message of the movie is that success won’t make you happy, and that there’s value to be found in embracing your failures as well. As such, it’s a little depressing and a little uplifting. The movie portrays this as a progression: the movie starts on a down note, but the ending is very uplifting (and hilarious) as the characters realize this quandary. The subject matter and tension are a bit heavy at first, but you will walk away from the movie feeling much better.
Little Miss Sunshine is great fun for those who have realized that life simply can’t be happy all of the time. The humor has a slightly dark undertone, but it’s one that I found very endearing, and the core message is very positive. The ending is also the best possible way to wrap up this problem that I can think of. This movie takes typical Hollywood optimism and turns it on its head, and that’s something I consider a smashing success.
View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!
Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Genres: comedy, drama, indie, LGBT
Movies Like Little Miss Sunshine
- The Royal Tenenbaums – This film captures some of the quirky humor as well as the central message of Little Miss Sunshine: it’s alright to not be perfect. It tells the story of an estranged family that learns to be vulnerable with each other as they finally grow to trust each other after years of being guarded, and it features an ending that really brings this message home.
- Good Will Hunting – Though considerably more serious than Little Miss Sunshine, this deals with some of the same themes: questions of not being good enough, lessons learned from pain, and moving on from the hurts of our past. Good Will Hunting is a great drama that addresses these themes in young adulthood rather than in a family setting.
- The Apartment – This classic film gives us a surprisingly modern depiction of a depressed character, and has a great balance of comedy and drama, much like Little Miss Sunshine. It’s stylistically quite different, but I liked it for many of the same reasons that I liked Little Miss Sunshine.