Mapping Contemporary Cinema

Little Miss Sunshine, 2006

Production Company: Big Beach Productions

Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Executive Producers: Jeb Brody, Michael Beugg

Producers: Marc Turtletaub, David Friendly, Peter Saraf, Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa

Screenplay: Michael Arndt

Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris

Cinematographer: Timothy Suhrstedt

Editor: Pamela Martin

Music: Mychael Danna, DeVotchKa

Cast: Greg Kinnear (Richard Hoover), Toni Collette (Sheryl), Steve Carell (Frank), Paul Dano (Dwayne), Abigail Breslin (Olive), Alan Arkin (Grandpa Edwin Hoover)

Running time: 101 mins

Classification: R for language, some sex and drug content

Box office gross: domestic $59.9m/worldwide $100.5m

Tagline: A family on the verge of a breakdown Continue reading


Plot Albuquerque, New Mexico. Present day. The winner of the regional beauty pageant forfeits her crown and the runner-up, Olive Hoover, is given a chance to compete in the state contest. Thus, the Hoover family–Richard, who is unsuccessfully trying to sell his nine-step programme for success; Dwayne, who has taken a vow of silence until he joins the Air Force Academy; Frank, a homosexual Proust scholar who has recently attempted suicide; Grandpa, a heroin-addict who coaches Olive; and, Sheryl, the pro-honesty mother–embark on a road trip with their VW bus to Redondo Beach, California. On the journey, Richard learns that his book has been rejected by publishers, Grandpa dies from a heroin overdose, and Dwayne discovers that he is colour blind, so cannot become a pilot. At the pageant, Olive performs a scandalous dance and is joined by the whole family on stage. They are taken to the police station, but are let free to drive home on the understanding that Olive never enters a beauty pageant ever again.

Film note Little Miss Sunshine illustrates the changing production trends of independent US cinema in the 1990s and 2000s and helps track the term “independent” as it becomes more and more elusive in the contemporary period. Today, “independent films” might still maintain a putative “indie” spirit but they have been largely co-opted by the major studios, usually being produced or distributed by a major Hollywood corporation’s specialty film division. As Jim Hillier notes, “in this sense ‘independent’ has become, if you like, more of a marketing label than a definition rooted in a film’s conditions of production and distribution” (258).

However, it would not be fair to say that this change dampened the spirit of independent film making in the 1990s and 2000s. On the contrary, as all of the major studios acquired smaller successful independent production companies or formed their own divisions from scratch (Disney acquired Miramax, 20th Century Fox created Fox Searchlight Pictures, Sony bought Orion Classics and renamed it Sony Picture Classics, and so on), a very significant new source of funding opened for independent producers providing a nurturing environment for the same sort of films that the independent producers of yesteryear might have tried to make on their own (Ortner 22). As an example, even though “Miramax’s dependent relationship was (and remains) crucial in terms of funding and distribution,” Miramax still maintains a very significant degree of freedom that was part of the acquisition deal with Disney and thus can be still referred to as “independent” (Hillier 256).

The deal Examples abound of “indie” films either produced or distributed by mainstream Hollywood corporations: Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999) was developed by Polygram, which was then taken over by Universal, who distributed the film, while Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) was made for Disney’s Touchstone and distributed by Disney’s Buena Vista. Following a similar trajectory, Little Miss Sunshine started out as just another “indie” film set up by a specialty film division at USA Films of Universal Pictures, before breaking loose and being produced and financed independently by Big Beach Productions and Marc Turtletaub. However, as it is with successful contemporary “indie” cinema, Little Miss Sunshine did not remain independent, with its distribution rights eventually sold back to another specialty film division, Fox Searchlight Pictures (belonging to 20th Century Fox).

The script (written by Michael Arndt, a young screenwriter working as Matthew Broderick’s assistant) was optioned by Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa of Bona Fide Productions for a reported fee of $150,000. They then took it to Marc Turtletaub and his Deep River Productions partner, David Friendly in 2001. As Turtletaub noted, “We made the commitment that we would find a way to make the movie if no studios were interested” (Barker). The four producers set up the project at USA Films, where it stayed untouched for three years. During this time, USA’s parent company, Universal, was purchased by NBC, resulting in major changes. As a result, USA Films morphed into Focus Features with a new set of executives and different goals and objectives (Waxman). Thus, in 2004, Turtletaub bought back the rights to the script for $400,000 and decided to finance the $7.5m production himself under the Big Beach Productions label that he co-founded with Peter Saraf (Ortner 22).

Little Miss Sunshine opened to a “rapturous response at the Sundance Film Festival” (Waxman). Yerxa cautiously noted, “a big success at Sundance doesn’t guarantee commercial success” (qtd. in Ortner 23). But as “the standing ovation faded at the Eccles Theater, the 20th Century Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman was already on the phone to the producers, urging them to choose his company” (Waxman). By the following morning, Little Miss Sunshine’s distribution rights had been bought by Fox Searchlight for the record price of $10.5m plus 10 percent of all gross revenue (Waxman). Before the end of the year of its release, the film grossed $60m, becoming the runaway “indie” success of 2006.

A significant part of the reason for the film’s success is the experience and talent of its production personnel. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris made their feature film directorial debut with Little Miss Sunshine, but the married couple had already established themselves with over seventy-five creative projects in film, television, commercials and music videos, earning them two Grammy Awards, nine MTV Music Video Awards and a Billboard Music “Director of the Year” Award for videos and documentaries for artists including REM, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Smashing Pumpkins, Janet Jackson and Oasis (“Production Notes”). It was not a coincidence that the directors chose this specific movie for their debut: Dayton said, “A lot of people had come to us with style pieces, but we liked that Little Miss Sunshine felt very distant from that world. Sure, we wanted to do something with style, but… [w]e wanted the experience to be drawn from what we love most in movies, one that celebrates human eccentricities” (qtd. in “Production Notes”). Faris concurred: “We felt that Little Miss Sunshine was a story that shifts much in the same way that life shifts, moving from drama to farce to reflection and back to farce again” (qtd. in “Production Notes”).

Moreover, given Faris and Dayton’s years of experience with music videos, close attention was paid to the film’s music score. They forged a synergistic partnership with acclaimed composer Mychael Danna and the eclectic Denver-based band DeVotchka, fronted by songwriter and lead singer Nick Urata, whose sound and music inspired much of the score. To complete the music, two songs by Sufjan Stevens (one of the most significant new voices in today’s music scene) were added. (Stevens’ ode to road trips, ‘Chicago,’ and the emotional ‘No Man’s Land,’ lend the indie artist’s uniquely modern sense of lush melody and moving lyrics to the film).

From the casting point of view, directors Faris and Dayton were fortunate enough that the script  won over the their “dream cast”, the most noteworthy being Alan Arkin, returning to the screen after a hiatus and cast as the foul-mouthed heroin snorting, Grandpa. Greg Kinnear, as Richard Hoover, the failed motivational speaker, and Toni Collette, as the divorcee pro-honesty mother Sheryl, trying to hold the family together. All are solid and attractive actors. Steve Carell, cast as the gay suicidal Proust scholar Frank, was the director-couple’s most fortunate pick, since from the time he was cast to the movie’s eventual release he moved from a position as a virtual unknown into one of Hollywood’s hottest properties due to his work in The 40-Year Old Virgin (2005) and NBC’s hit series The Office (2005). Moreover, the movie also features exceptional performances by two rising-star young actors: Paul Dano, in the role of angry teen Dwayne, and Abigail Breslin as the heart and soul of the family, Olive.

A “feel good” indie The niche positioning of Little Miss Sunshine at the edges of the genre of so-called “smart cinema” also contributed to its commercial success. “Smart cinema” emerged in the 1990s and is characterized by irony, black humor, fatalism, relativism, and occasional nihilism (Sconce 429). This extremely broad mode of cinematic practice marks an interesting shift in the strategies of “art cinema,” defined by Jeffrey Sconce as “movies marketed in explicit counter-distinction to mainstream Hollywood fare as ‘smarter’, ‘artier’, and more ‘independent’” (Sconce 429). Sconce traces smart cinema back to the mainstream success of television shows such as Seinfeld (1989-1998), South Park (1997-ongoing) and The Simpsons (1989-ongoing), which were predicated on a deeply ironic, critical tone. This prevailing ironic culture, Sconce argues, gave rise to the contemporary smart cinema, in which dark, clever comedies and disturbing dramas showcased disaffection and ennui within a broadly ironic frame, as typified by films such as Napoleon Dynamite (2004) and the work of Wes Anderson and Todd Haynes.

Depicting a white middle-class nuclear family as “a crucible of miscommunication and emotional dysfunction” for the purpose of critiquing conservative values, and doing so with a “blankness,” or “dampened effect” of cinematic presentation further conforms Little Miss Sunshine to Sconce’s template of smart cinema (Sconce 432). From a stylistic point of view, one form of “blank” narration readily apparent in Little Miss Sunshine is the tactical use of incongruity and radical juxtaposition of ironic form and content. The movie begins with a close-up on two dreamy eyes framed with blatantly démodé glasses watching and re-watching the crowning of Miss America on television. The camera changes view-point, unveiling Olive, a chubby, slightly unappealingly looking eight year-old Olive practicing the winning reaction of a beauty queen in the living room of a modest, wood-panelled tract house. The camera shifts rapidly again, now framing Olive from behind, positioning her such that she seems to shrink compared to the beauty queen on the huge screen, suggesting that the film will play on this unlikely character’s unlikely dream. Yet, Richard Hoover’s voice from the next scene cuts in early: “There are two kinds of people in this world, winners and losers.” With such a dramatic effect, the viewer instantly registers which group to classify Olive into, marking the film’s commitment to a deeply ironic tone. However, we then cut to the face of Richard, continuing his speech, countering his previous statement unconsciously: “Inside every one of you, at the very core of your being, is a winner waiting to be awakened and unleashed upon the world.” Through a speech filled with deep pathos, Richard unveils his nine-step “Refuse to Lose” programme that is supposed to provide the know-how to make dreams come true. Concluding his speech, the irony hits hard, as the half-empty auditorium is revealed. This intense and unexpected juxtaposition of mismatched form and content sets the ironic tone and “blank” style for the duration of Little Miss Sunshine.

Moving beyond this more specific style and narrative organization, a closer look at the movie’s editing and framing patterns reveals the consistent use of long shots, static composition, and sparse cutting. In Little Miss Sunshine, the impact of many of the scenes depends on the “uncomfortable and unspeakable” being displayed with acute blankness (Sconce 434). This is apparent during the “awkward dining” shot at the beginning of the movie–a scene ubiquitous to smart cinema–in which a series of long shots capture the stilted quality of the dysfunctional Hoover family dynamic. Another characteristic of this blank style is the realistic, “matter-of-fact” lighting, which adds to the dampened affect and irony of presentation. Cinematographer Timothy Suhrstedt wanted to stay away from the typically bright, sunny tones associated with family comedies, stating, “I’m not a big believer in the idea that comedies need to be intensely lit. For this film, I wanted to light the actors naturalistically, and then make it about getting the right angles to capture the performances” (“Production Notes”).

However, Little Miss Sunshine is not entirely beholden to the smart cinema template, distancing itself from the cynical, nihilistic aspects of this group of films and seeking a position closer to the mainstream. While references in the film to Friedrich Nietzsche and Marcel Proust, for example, do seem intended to appeal to a “smarter,” more erudite, audience, these allusions are fairly marginal to the dominant tone of the film. In this sense then, while the traditional political agenda of a smart cinema-style family movie would convey “the familiar theme that repression and miscommunication make the white middle class particularly ill suited for either relationships or marriage,” Little Miss Sunshine conveys something very different (Sconce 436). As Breslin notes, “what the movie’s about is that even though not every family’s perfect, even the imperfect family can still love each other just as much” (“Production Notes”).

At its core, Little Miss Sunshine would seem to present a fairly conventional narrative of triumph over adversity. The film focuses on Olive’s struggle to fit in and succeed as a beauty queen contestant, but it is important to note that there is no conventional happy ending. Olive is slightly overweight, has no talent as a dancer, and fails in her quest. That said, the film layers all the trappings of a happy ending onto these narrative events, the cohering of the Hoovers as a loving family unit replacing the overt goal of winning the beauty pageant. The epic journey of the 1971 VW campervan is the symbolic journey of the individual who keeps pursuing an unattainable dream on a road paved with markers of impotence and signs of failure. Dwayne sums up the film’s underlying principle when he states, “Life is one fucking beauty contest after another… Do what you love, and fuck the rest!” The last scene of the movie, in which the whole Hoover family gets on the stage of the beauty pageant’s Talent Competition, in support of Olive, is particularly striking in its joyous commitment to laughter in the face of public humiliation.

By these means, the film maintains its “indie” feel while also violating one of the unwritten taboos of “indie” filmmaking–it appends a happy ending, albeit a displaced one (Ortner). The film intertwines the dark, grim, and satirical elements of smart cinema with a lighthearted atmosphere full of life and sunshine. Instead of the usual indie fare that makes you want to up your dosage of antidepressants Little Miss Sunshine is a “Prozac movie” designed to make you feel better about yourself (Newman). Of course, implicit here is the possibility that the effect is temporary, chemically induced, and surfaces over the symptoms of a still untreated underlying condition.

From a socio-cultural perspective, Little Miss Sunshine is a riposte to George W. Bush’s brand of strident Republicanism. The five years preceding the film’s release was a time of political disillusionment in the US, with the disappointment of the prolonged and unsuccessful Iraq war and a growing commitment to democratic liberalism (as evidenced by the election of Barack Obama in 2008). Little Miss Sunshine can be read as part of this move towards the liberal centre, with traditional conservative family values leavened by concessions to more liberal views. As Valerie Faris notes, “we wanted to make a film not about family values, but about the value of family” (“Production Notes”). The dysfunctional Hoovers reveal themselves to be the only “normal” people among the surreal and freakish beauty pageant contestants and parents, even though they display a range of unorthodox and, from a conservative Republican stand-point, undesirable characteristics including homosexuality, divorce, drug addiction and promiscuity. The iconic scene where heroin-addicted Grandpa gives advice to Dwayne–“Fuck a lot of women Dwayne; not just one woman, a lot of women”–represents the “voice of experience” from a liberal past of the 1960s in marked contrast with the return of conservative beliefs since the Reagan era. The use of the yellow VW campervan, also a countercultural symbol of the hippie era, is a marker of the film’s liberal pedigree, anti-consumerist bent, cheerful disposition and commitment to (non-nuclear) family togetherness.


Barker, A. “Sunshine Repeatedly Rejected Before Getting Made,” Variety,, 18 Jan. 2007. Web. 29 Mar. 2008.

Hillier, Jim. “US Independent Cinema Since the 1980s.” Contemporary American Cinema. ed. Linda Williams and Michael Hammond. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006: 247-264. Print.

Newman, B. “Review: Little Miss Sunshine.” Web. 29 Mar. 2008.

Ortner, S. “Notes From Hollywood: Little Miss Sunshine Finds Its Way.” Anthropology News. 48.7 (2007): 22-23. Print.

“Production Notes: Little Miss Sunshine.” Web. 30 Mar. 2008.

Sconce, Jeffrey. “Smart Cinema.” in Contemporary American Cinema. ed. Linda Williams and Michael Hammond. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006: 429-439. Print.

Waxman, S. “A Small Film Nearly Left for Dead Has Its Day in the Sundance Rays.” The New York Times., 23 Jan. 2006. Web. 29 Mar. 2008.

Written by Kristóf Zsigmond Zétényi (2009); edited by Guy Westwell (2011), Queen Mary, University of London

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Copyright © 2011 Kristóf Zsigmond Zétényi/Mapping Contemporary Cinema

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