Little Miss Sunshine is a cult classic that retains its charm 14 years after its initial release in 2006. The characters are lovable and the cast does a brilliant job portraying them, but it’s the film’s sharp insight into humanity that makes fans return time and time again for more.
A major theme of the film is winning and losing. Olive (Abigail Breslin) enters a beauty pageant and her dad fiercely reminds her that if she doesn’t think she can win, she might as well not enter. This is the same dad that has designed an entire self-help system based on choosing to be a winner rather than a loser. All the decisions he makes in the first half of the film are navigated by his relentless obsession with being a winner.
Dwayne (Paul Eno), the angsty teenager who has taken a vow of silence, has a breakdown when he learns he cannot be a pilot. During his freak out, he attacks his family, labeling them all losers by picking out their deepest flaws. Prior to this, we learn that his uncle Frank (Steve Carrell) has attempted suicide because he feels second best to the man who stole his lover and his job title. Like the rest of his family, he becomes crippled by his fear of being a loser.
And then, after an action-packed journey to California, the Hoovers meet the pageant nuts that are so obsessed with the idea of winning, they seem to have lost their humanity. One of the judges won’t even let Olive enter because she is three minutes late. Dwayne and his father later try and talk Olive out of performing her dance out of fear she will get laughed at, but Olive’s mother reminds them that they need to just let Olive be herself.
In the beautiful climax, Olive performs the dance her grandfather taught her, much to the horror of the pageantry panel. She innocently executes a series of obscene dance moves to Rick James’ “Super Freak”. When the pageantry judges try to prematurely terminate her performance, the Hoovers steps in to give her the chance to finish the routine. Instead, they end up dancing with her, in the dorkiest, cringiest way possible.
And yet, despite the fact they look like the “losers” they were afraid to be, in this scene, our characters become the biggest winners of them all. They embrace who they are and stop fretting about who they think they should be. They realize that family comes first and above all, they embrace the humanity that the obsession with winning threatens to diminish. Ultimately, Little Miss Sunshine is a champion of abandoning social pressures in favor of being yourself. And it’s perfect.