catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 19 :: 2007.10.19 — 2007.11.02


Splendor in the grass

As I walked the aisles of the video store to pull out our family movie for the evening, one in particular stood out. I’d heard about it and had been anticipating seeing it. As my family and I lounged and laughed endlessly, Little Miss Sunshine left a vast impression. The impression that I left with was first of all just plain ole fun generated by a great fun-loving story. On the other hand, it had me thinking about how we dress up. In this case we learn via our young heroine’s ambitions that our dress up is really a cover up.

French intellectual Marcel Proust once noted, “Only through art can we emerge from ourselves and know what another person sees.” These words offer us a simple opportunity to reflect upon a movie that gives us a very poignant and visceral portrayal of both others and ourselves. It’s likely that many won’t be entertained by Sunshine. Regardless, let me say clearly, I love this film. And I’d like to suggest that Little Miss Sunshine offers us a mirror into our own families, our own personal secrets, our hopes and otherwise. I believe Sunshine offers us a fresh spin on life and can be of significant personal encouragement and challenge.

In the first image of the movie we get a close-up of a young girl, the nebulous reflection of televised beauty pageantry billowing in her big-framed glasses. We see starry-eyed innocence alongside unrestrained jubilation as Miss America is crowned in the glowing reflection of our heroine’s big blue eyes.

We begin with a brief intro into the lives of each of our central players and then we arrive at a telling dinner sequence in which all of their quirks slowly unravel. As they devour Dinah’s Fried Chicken and frosty popsicles, we begin to sense the functionality of their dysfunction. In other words, we begin to see the normalcy of suffering in the family unit, theirs and ours. In this we’re given the opportunity to ponder what’s meant by dysfunction and how we might ultimately be putting ourselves and our families on trial with our hasty judgments of the Hoovers. As the second act of our story begins, the Hoovers begin an arduous trek from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Redondo Beach, California to attend the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant, in their glossy yellow six-seater VW van. What emerges in the end is a splendid road-trip picture that’s just plain hilarious and darkly poetic. It’s charming and eloquent, a movie with soul.  

What makes the movie charming are its unique characters. Olive (Abigail Breslin), our heroine, is an aspiring beauty queen who rehearses day and night in hopes of one day hoisting the crown. Her coach is her potty-mouthed, heroin-snorting Grandpa (Alan Arkin) who lives at home after being booted from the local retirement home because of his heightened libido and bad habits. The patriarch of this humble abode is Richard (Greg Kinnear), an aspiring motivational speaker with unfortunately more steps in his program than conference attendees at his seminar. The bedrock of course is mom Sheryl (Toni Collette). Above all else, she values her family and keeping them together. Then there’s Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), Sheryl's brother, the top Proust scholar in the world. Frank’s just been released from the hospital after a failed suicide attempt. Finally, there’s Olive’s teenage misanthrope brother Dwayne (Paul Dano) who’s taken a vow of silence until he reaches his goal of entering flight school—and, oh yeah, because of Nietzsche (“Nee-chah” as Frank notes it). Together they endure the road, its elements, and each other with a running start, literally, as they attempt to make sense of the challenges of family and life. 

Little Miss Sunshine is the directorial debut of renowned music video directors (husband-and-wife) Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. With a fabulous script by Michael Arndt and distinct music by DeVotchka this movie leaves you satisfied and yet wanting more. Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers referred to it as “National Lampoon's Family Vacation with soul.” Fox Searchlight Studios framed it this way: Sunshine is a film about dreams and the “elusive nature of those American Dreams we all chase, the detours we follow—and the roads we don't…Brazenly satirical and yet deeply human…the film strikes a nerve with everyone who's ever been awestruck by how their muddled families seem to make it after all.” Sunshine captures the all too familiar reality of our peculiar family dynamics and how adversity tends to bring out both the best and worst of us and how we find ourselves in the midst.  

Marcel Proust also stated, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Watching Little Miss Sunshine led me to the question of whether we really can see with new eyes. Our characters, we the same, are under weight of our experiences which often affirm the idea that life offers us little help in our attempts to stay afloat. This dilemma resonated with me.

I think if you look around at our culture, what we sell and consume, we’re constantly on the run for that ‘fix’. We’re constantly misguided into thinking that we were promised happiness rather than the pursuit of it. I think the challenge with this film, not artistically but personally and philosophically is that we aren’t really able to see with new eyes. The worlds we live in and that our characters inhabit simply perpetuate our sense of brokenness.  

The discrepancy that arises between the hopes we have for our lives and the reality of those dreams unrealized results in an identity crisis, chaos of the soul. We realize we’re unable to see as we should, as we wish, as we hope. We’re relegated to a condition of emotional paralysis and we can only perpetuate our brokenness. Again, can we see with new eyes?

I can only hope that as we attempt to kick back with our families around the table of great food and banter that we can process life in ways that enable us to see with new eyes. The apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Ephesus stated it this way: “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling; what are the riches of glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe (Ephesians 1:18-19).”

I think Sunshine’s journey and the hope for more emerges in a vivid and ballad-like scene sandwiched between a hearse-like heist and a road rage incident that leaves a trail of hilarity squeaking in syncopation down the California highway. It’s a still scene, peaceful. “Dad, what’s going to happen to grandpa?” A glazed look of curious bewilderment sets in while the shadows of the mix-master overpasses paint their faces. Olive then turns to Frank: “Uncle Frank, do you think there’s a heaven?” With a slight pause, “That’s hard to say, Olive. I—I don’t think anyone knows for sure.” Olive, “I know, but what do you think?” Uncle Frank, hesitantly: “Um, well…” Olive quickly interjects, “I think there is one.” Uncle Frank asks, “You think I’ll get in?” Olive confidently responds, “Yes.”

Amid all our attempts to get it and keep it together we fail to ponder what it is. We’re lost in the labyrinth of the status-quo, this intangible and seemingly impossible set of standards that have been established for us. The great crux of Sunshine is that in the face of this confusion it’s our families that mend and hold. Sunshine celebrates the family and compels us to self-reflect. Perhaps in the process we find a resonant voice. As I reflected on how often I strive for a sense of normalcy, I found myself wondering what normal is and where this compulsion comes from. I realized in watching this movie that we tend despite our flaws to want to mask them with emotional beauty pageantry. Here’s what I mean. The pageant really calls attention, with tan literally being sprayed on and beauty being defined solely on the external, to how we dress up to cover up. We can’t deal with the emotional distress and so we overcompensate to level out the internal strife. Richard captures it well when the family VW is pulled over by the State Police: “Okay. Everybody just pretend to be normal, okay? Like—like everything’s normal here.” We so want to be normal even though we don’t know what that is.  I think Sunshine offers us a poignant reflection of that journey of discovery. 

I noted innocence earlier in our heroine as this best captures what William Wordsworth referred to as ‘splendor in the grass’. Our lives, this charming tale, are saturated with suffering and though we are unable to recapture that ‘splendor in the grass’ we are able to get beyond the limitations of our families, of our selves, and find something greater. In his poem, “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” Wordsworth captures this theme of suffering with redemptive light:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy…

What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death…

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