Saturday, August 26, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

My respected colleague The Lively Traditionalist offers a heavy, heavy review of the movie Little Miss Sunshine on his blog. He interprets the movie as a vehicle for portraying "generational antagonism" with the Baby Boomers receiving the accusing finger. LT can get away with statements like this - he's got 30 years on me. I got something different from the film:

Even if you don't buy what LT writes you can't deny that Little Miss Sunshine is one symbolically rich movie. Consider the teenage son, Dwayne, who we discover has taken a vow of silence and is reading Thus Spake Zarathustra. Get the irony? Spake. Now, I don't claim to be up on my Friedrich Nietzsche (or my Proust) but when I think of Nietzsche I think of two things. First, the declaration that "God is Dead." And second, the idea of the "will to power." Could Dwayne's silence be a refusal to deny the existence of God? More likely, it is a declaration of the power of the will. When will battles fate in this film, will always comes up short. Greg Kinnear's Richard is perhaps the best example of this. His 9-step program is all about will (in this way, it is the exact opposite of the more familiar 12-step program) but his will is powerless to get him a business deal. Fate wins.

Little Miss Sunshine has other kinds of symbolic richness. Take for instance the barren and desolate landscape through which the characters travel. I cannot recall a road-trip movie in which both the natural and human-created landscape is as empty. From the harsh desert of the American Southwest to a landscape dotted with overpasses, ugly motels, and blacktop - emptiness is the dominant motif. (Anti-patriotic symbolism is another recurring theme. There is the hotel scene where listening to your parents scream at each other is found preferable to listening to a Bush press conference. There's also the creepiest version of "America the Beautiful" you could possibly imagine.) In no scene are these images of desolation stronger than in the scene where Dwayne and Frank have a turning moment. This scene takes place on an ocean pier as the characters gaze out on the empty horizon of a seascape that is every bit as harsh and desolate as the desert through which they've driven.

Existentialism is the conclusion of this film. Life is miserable. Happiness is an illusion. If you're not miserable, you're not really living. The secret is that we don't have to be miserable alone.

Of course, it is not the landscape or the symbolism that make the movie a fun one. The characters make it what it is. The characters, with the exception of Olive, each represent a flawed strategy for making it through life:

Grandpa's flawed strategy is hedonism ("selfishness" according to LT). Life is about doing whatever feels good, without much concern for how it impacts others.

Richard's flawed strategy is ideology mixed in with a bit of tragic hubris. Life is about following the right formula.

Sheryl's flawed strategy is permissiveness and fascination with the world. She shows no boundaries about what is appropriate for Olive to be exposed to.

Frank struggles with jealousy, despair, anger, and detachment. He requires others to confirm his specialness.

Dwayne represents nihilism and solipsism.

Each of these characters competes to expose Olive to their worldview or impose it upon her. All of the characters are flawed, but all of them are likable. You want for them not to remain trapped in the situation in which they are trapped.

The movie is about each of them discovering the inadequacy of each of these approaches to life, and finding another, one that isn't perfect. The secret is about being together in spite of being perfect.

Plus, the soundtrack features two songs by Sufjan Stevens.