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Little Miss: Big Hit – CC2K explores the paradoxical success of Little Miss Sunshine

Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer


Little Miss Sunshine: Good movie, monochromatic poster.

Little Miss Sunshine is a film chock full of oxymorons. It is a slapstick comedy that strives for realism. It is, in tone and plot, a very sad movie, and yet it will be remembered by those who see it as being funny. The characters have subtle nuances that help shade their broad stereotypes. Hell, even the character stereotypes are oxymoronic: there’s the ugly beauty queen, the cantankerous old man with a heart of gold, the highly motivated failure, the gay French literature buff (…okay, that last one was a joke).  In fact, given the amount of things that are, on paper at least, wrong with this film, the only thing that prevents it from being a total disaster is the fact that it fucking rocks.

Now there are a lot of ways in which Little Miss Sunshine is a triumph. The writing is spot on, the performances render even the least likeable amongst them endearing, the soundtrack kicks ass, and the story keeps moving briskly even as the actual events unfold slowly. It would be easy to write a few hundred words on all of these things, but the odds are that anyone who takes the time to read this has already read an article like that elsewhere, and done better than I could. So, I’m going to write about what REALLY impressed me with this movie: its ability to break long-held and accepted rules of comedy, with no ill effects.


The most exciting scene in the movie. I’m telling you, it just CAN’T be good, can it?

I feel certain that I’ve mentioned this on these pages before (though I can’t think of where and why, so I’m going to repeat myself), but there is a rule of comedy that I was taught once that states that, when setting something up as a comedic “surprise,” you have to reveal it relatively quickly, lest your audience become disappointed in whatever you eventually offer up.  To put it another way, if you introduce a concept that is supposed to have a comic payoff, yet keep it a secret, the longer you build it up, the more the audience will expect the resultant joke to be the funniest thing they’ll see at that time. Let me illustrate with an example:


JOE: I can’t believe we just got away with that prank!

MATT: I KNOW! Man, mom is going to FREAK OUT when she finds it!

JOE: Yeah! I can’t believe you came up with that idea! I never thought you’d break the law!

MATT: Hey, when I found that tire iron sitting in the cocoa butter, I knew what I had to do.

JOE: Well, it wouldn’t have worked NEARLY as well if I hadn’t lent you my Cabbage Patch Kid!

MATT: True. His powdery smell was vital to making the prank work.

And so on.

{jgibox title:=[Click Here for a note on Oxymoronic Character Stereotypes] style:=[width:550px;]} The effort to have characters that were created to be contradictory in nature has never been so clear to me. In fact, the only other time that I can remember being slapped in the face by obviously opposing character traits was during the first Big Brother. Now, you’ll remember Big Brother as the huge annual reality show that you never watch. I am in this same camp with you, but on the first night of the first season of Big Brother, I was sitting in my apartment bedroom in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with a blazing fever and a severe case of strep throat. Thus, I watched my first, last, and only episode of BB. In this show, they were introducing the real people they had chosen to live in the house. As they went through the list, doing cursory introductions with the requisite bio pieces, it became clear to me that the casting directive was to find people that didn’t make any fucking sense. There was the virgin beauty queen, the repressed free spirit, and the batshit insane “normal” guy. The eventual winner of the game (so I seem to recall) was the guy who could only be described as a one-legged jock. I don’t remember a thing about these people, what they said or did, or why anyone should ever care about them, but the casting people did something right, because I remember enough through my delirium to share it with you now. {/jgibox}

Now, a scene like this COULD be funny, but here’s the problem. As soon as the plot was set up (in this case, a successful, unnamed prank), the players (or writers) have to get off the fence, make a decision, and decide what that prank was. Because by the time you get to the third or fourth line of talking about how great it was, the audience is now formulating ideas about what it could be; NOT the details necessarily, but at least the scope, and the perceived payoff.  The only way to make this scene work, at this point, is for the two players to continue to add more and more details to what that prank was, without ever revealing it in its entirety. I guarantee you that, if one of them gives it up and tries to tie it all together, it will fall flat.

Now I bring this up here because Little Miss Sunshine is built ENTIRELY on such a joke as its central conceit. In this case, the prank is substituted by frumpy little Olive’s routine that she has been practicing for competing in beauty pageants. From the very beginning of the movie, Olive is tucked away with her grandfather, rehearsing her act. When a surprise cancellation leaves her with a place in the Little Miss Sunshine competition in California, her family ends up traveling 600 miles by van to get her there in time to compete. Though references are made at various points to this act, and to Olive practicing up on it for the big pageant, we never get so much as a hint as to what she is going to do. When the family finally arrives at the contest, a lot of comedy is mined with the other contestants, and the whole child beauty pageant scene. However, it is clear that we are building up to Olive’s talent performance.

According to the rule of comedy above, this concept should not work. No matter how witty or creative the final scene would end up being, it could NEVER compare to the hypothetical scene that the viewers will be expecting in their minds.  Again, according to conventional rules, the viewers should either have an IDEA of what to expect ahead of time, or they ultimately should not EVER see Olive’s performance. In fact, this option is teased in the film, when both her dad and brother rush backstage to try to get her not to perform, so she won’t embarrass herself. While we don’t know if she hears this conversation, she steels herself, nods into the mirror, walks with Chloe from 24 to the stage, and performs her act in its entirety.

And, against all odds, it works. Brilliantly. Somehow, even after ninety minutes of hearing about this act, and preparing for it to be the comedic highlight of the film, it shows up, and becomes the comedic highlight of the film. The performance that Olive delivers, in pure comedic value and surprise, surpasses ANYTHING that the viewer can come up with in their minds, and as a result, it delivers big, genuine laughs.

{jgibox title:=[Important Note about the Preceding Paragraph (click to read)] style:=[width:550px;]}I am well aware of the raging irony inherent in writing a paragraph that extols the comedic power of a movie scene that lives up to its own hype. Those of you who have not seen this film will now, if you go to see it, be waiting for this scene from the very beginning, and as such, I might have fallen prey to the very rule of comedy that I have praised Little Miss Sunshine for breaking with such aplomb. However, this is a risk I’m prepared to take. {/jgibox}

The second thing that impressed me about Little Miss Sunshine was its ability to turn a very sad premise into a very happy movie, without resorting to deus ex machina bullshit to tie up its loose ends. To illustrate this, let me first offer a brief list of some of the actual things that happen to these characters over the course of the film:

1. The father, in dire financial straits,  finds out that his one chance at redemption has failed.

2. The brother discovers that his dreams for his life are irredeemably dashed.

3. The suicidal uncle, who attempted to kill himself after finding his love for another spurned, runs into his beloved, in the arms of another.

4. A family member dies.


The family travels 600 miles so SHE can be a beauty queen.

  And all this occurs while they are on their way to let the young Olive compete in a beauty pageant THAT SHE HAS NO CHANCE OF WINNING! It’s not just that she won’t win, but it’s hopelessly apparent that she is going to get destroyed. Or at least, that’s what should happen. Given the tone of the entire film, if Olive kicked ass at that pageant and walked away a winner, it might have put a smile on a few of the lesser faces in the theater, but it would have reeked of implausibility.  And so, the family sets off on a fool’s errand doomed to failure, and this is exactly what happens.

And yet, I can almost guarantee that the vast majority of those who saw it left with a smile on their face. If this seems paradoxical, it only coincides with everything else about this movie.

In the same way that you have to learn how to swing a baseball bat the fundamental way before you can develop your own personal swing, you have to have a master grasp on screenwriting and filmmaking before you can then break the rules of conventions without it seeming false and trite. That Little Miss Sunshine works as well as it does is a testament to the skill of those in charge, and bears discussion by moviegoers and students alike.  Unless we find out that it was written and directed by a team of chimps; that would turn out to be the ultimate paradox, which would actually prove to be quite appropriate in this case. Let’s wait and see.