Alisha and I watched “Little Miss Sunshine” last night.
The thing about my movie-watching habits is that A) I’m a parent of two young children, and B) I’m cheap, which means that I only get to see movies when the library decides to buy the DVD and when either C) the kids go to sleep early, or D) I’m willing to stay up to an outlandish hour. By the time I get around to watching a movie, I’ve probably read 3-5 movie reviews, and know the basic plot points. I’m the farthest thing from a tabula rasa you can get without actually watching the movie.
In the case of “Little Miss Sunshine,” I was already familiar with both sides of the argument. The fans argue that it’s a side-splitting comedy with a stellar cast that satirizes our American obssession with winning and beauty pageants. The critics argue that it’s yet another indie film that tries to wring laughs out of studiously “offbeat” characters and ridiculous, condescending situations.
I wasn’t necessarily sure what to expect.
In the end, I think both fans and critics miss the point. The fans are correct that the movie is often funny as well as touching. The critics are correct that the characters and situations are unrealistic, and that it revels in sitcom-y family dysfunction.
Yet for me, while the filmmakers (first-timers who are sitcom vets) may have indulged the current indie trend for preciousness, the film works as an examination of family and self-awareness.
What ties the film together is that each of the main characters discovers that their most cherished dream is an unattainable illusion.
The dad realizes that he’ll never become rich as a motivational speaker. The mom realizes that her efforts to promote “honesty” in her family have simply served as cover for the fact that she is a terrible mother whose kids are more mature than she. The uncle realizes that he truly has ruined his life and career after losing his lover to his greatest rival. The son realizes that his cherished dream of attending the Air Force Academy and flying fighter jets is impossible due to his color-blindness. And the daughter realizes that she is a fat little girl who will never win a beauty contest.
Yet it is precisely these realizations that make them better people. Up to that point, each of them views the other family members largely as a means to an end, rather than as someone to love and cherish. It takes the shattering of their self-centered illusions to realize that ordinary life is worth living. To quote one of my favorite authors, Lois McMaster-Bujold, “You just go on.”
Accepting reality is the first step towards changing it. Are the characters in the movie better off at the end than at the beginning? Though their illusions have been shattered, the good thing is that their illusions have been shattered. And they’ve learned that love, family, and Rick James’ “Superfreak” are powerful forces for happiness.