Why You Should Watch Little Miss Sunshine When You’re Sad: A Reflection on Life’s Larger Struggles and Smaller, More Important, Triumphs

Patrick Slover, Paper Clip Staff/Writer

We all have comfort items to make us happy when sad. Whether that is food, music, or movies we all have something to lift our spirits. But what do we do when we can’t feel happy, or when the only feeling is sadness? 


The movie Little Miss Sunshine, directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, released in 2006, teaches us that it is okay to be sad. It is okay to scream, to cry, to lose, to be yourself. 


Little Miss Sunshine follows Sheryl Hoover, played by Toni Collette, her daughter Olive, played by Abigail Breslin, her son Dwayne, played by Paul Dano, her husband Richard, played by Greg Kinnear, her gay brother Frank, played by Steve Carell, and her father-in-law Edwin, played by Alan Arkin. Each character has their own drive and philosophies surrounding life.


Richard is working hard to publish his book about the steps to success and has a black-and-white viewpoint on winning and losing. Olive is working tirelessly to perfect her routine for her upcoming beauty pageant. Dwayne swore himself to silence and counted the days before he could become a pilot. Sheryl just wants everyone to be happy. 


The only exceptions are Edwin and Frank. Edwin is nearing the end of his life and is content living the rest of his life high. Frank, on the other hand, is at his lowest point. We first meet Frank when Sheryl picks him up at the hospital, omitted because of injuries from an attempted suicide. He is at his lowest and unlike the other characters, he has no drive. 


A lesson can be learned from all of the characters’ stories, and all the lessons can be shown through Olive. Olive is a young girl and is open to influence, so all of the other family members try to influence her with their own philosophies.


Richard represents what’s wrong with the quest for happiness, and is the philosophical antagonist of the movie, preaching the absolute opposite lesson of what the film intends. This can be seen in Richard’s explanation of Frank’s suicide attempt to Olive. He sees a suicide attempt as losing, which is damaging in many ways. 


Richard’s views of winning and losing are two extremes, and the movie intends to contradict this philosophy, and argues that there is no one final feeling of winning or losing, happiness or sadness. Throughout the movie, all the characters face highs and lows, but it is the happy times can be appreciated along the way. 


Richard’s dad, Edwin, has a completely opposite outlook. When Richard’s book fails, Erwin tells his son that he is proud of him. He states that indifference is failure and that he is proud that he tried, and that Richard should be proud too. This completely contradicts Richard’s whole philosophy. If Richard is the philosophical antagonist, then Erwin is the protagonist. 


He preaches the lesson that failure is only the absence of trying. He tells this to Olive who had just failed at one of her pageant endeavors. She cries and thinks of the lessons his father taught her. She thinks of herself as a failure. However, Erwin preaches the idea that failure is only if you don’t try at all. Or, as he says, “Do you know what a loser is? A real loser is somebody who is so afraid of not winning they don’t even try.”


Dwayne also has a convoluted vision of success. He is not enjoying life as it passes. He is not enjoying the little luxuries and successes of living life along the way. 


This compromised outlook on life erupts when he learns he is color-blind and cannot be a pilot. His philosophy of hard work and drive blows up in his face, and shows that hard work needs to be complemented with recognition of happiness along the journey. The cliche of ‘it’s not the destination, but the journey along the way’ reigns true. 


Finally, the arc of Frank is especially compelling. Unlike the other characters, Frank starts the movie at his lowest point, a suicide attempt.. In the first part of the movie, Frank is simply an observer of the family. However, along the cross-country journey, he starts living again. 


The bus, and how it takes the whole family to push it to get it started, poses as a great metaphor for how important help from others can be. This is where we first see Frank smile. After the family pushes the car and makes it start, Frank celebrates with the family. He enjoys the little joys of life along the way. 


Frank continues to find purpose which culminates in his act of running into the pageant registration. The family is at risk of being too late for Olive’s pageant registration, but Frank is the first one to sprint into the building in order to be on time. It shows his newfound sense of purpose, as he is putting himself out there for a silly little girl’s antics. He shows that even when someone is at their lowest, there are always things to be happy about, little joys to keep us going. 


Little Miss Sunshine is the perfect movie to watch when you’re sad. It follows characters that, anecdotally, are losers; however, they find joy in their journey and change their philosophies to live happier lives. No feeling is final, no emotion will last, and happiness and success will not be forever, but are always available along the way. 


As high school students, we can especially take away the lessons taught in this film. In high school, you will fail, you will feel alone, and you will feel unmotivated. You will reach a new low, lower than you thought was possible, only to find you can fall even lower. But, the little things will bring you out of that hole. There will always be help from others to kickstart your van. You may feel that you are losing, but in reality, no one is ever losing. If you are trying, you are winning. So, the least we can all do is just try.


In Albuquerque, Sheryl Hoover brings her suicidal brother Frank to the breast of her dysfunctional and emotionally bankrupted family. Frank is homosexual, an expert in Proust. He tried to commit suicide when he was rejected by his boyfriend and his great competitor became renowned and recognized as number one in the field of Proust. Sheryl’s husband Richard is unsuccessfully trying to sell his self-help and self-improvement technique using nine steps to reach success, but he is actually a complete loser. Her son Dwayne has taken a vow of silence as a follower of Nietzsche and aims to be a jet pilot. Dwayne’s grandfather Edwin was sent away from the institution for elders (Sunset Manor) and is addicted in heroin. When her seven-year-old daughter Olive has a chance to dispute the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in Redondo Beach, California, the whole family travels together in their old Volkswagen Type 2 (Kombi) in a funny journey of hope of winning the talent contest and to make a dream come true.