Caution: This entry includes spoilers for the movie Little Miss Sunshine and the book Grapes of Wrath. You've been warned...
Okay, so we're a little behind in our movie viewing! But we recently restarted our Netflix subscription and are getting caught up on last year's films. First on our queue (so happy to have the word queue come into American parlance!), was the controversial Little Miss Sunshine. I didn't have high hopes for the film--mostly because my brother didn't like it much, and another dear friend thought it was insipid from the first scene on through. Nonetheless, it seemed like a movie you couldn't miss.
Now maybe it depends on your mood when you start the film, but D and I thought this movie was a hoot. I don't know what it is about wildly dysfunctional families that crack us up, but this one did. In some ways the movie seemed to be in the vein of a Douglas Coupland book--especially All Families are Psychotic. But even more than the quintessential Gen-X author Coupland, Little Miss Sunshine reminded me of another American author, the great John Steinbeck--especially his book The Grapes of Wrath. So much so, that I am made to wonder if the film was an intentional homage to that classic story in American literature.
Like Grapes, the characters of Little Miss Sunshine embark on a road trip to the "promised land" of California, in order to cash in on the great prize of the American dream--in this case embodied in Olive's dream to win the beauty pageant after which the film is named. In Grapes the characters carry around a flier that announces plenty of jobs for those who are willing to work in the fields of California. The flier is a scam; ultimately, meant to flood the market with labor so the migrant workers can be hired at well below living-wage. Similarly, the beauty pageant is another form of scam--building off the great American dream of working hard, applying yourself, never giving up, pull-yourself-up-by-the-boot-straps-and-you'll-succeed. An ideology that the father in Sunshine completely buys into and even markets in his "Nine Steps to Success."
Grapes begins with an older brother who is released from prison just before the family leaves for California. Sunshine begins with an uncle who is released from the psychiatric ward of a hospital after a suicide attempt. Grapes has a surly grandfather and a grandmother who both die along the way. The grandmother's body has to be smuggled across state lines because of corrupt funeral directors who are out to make a buck on the miseries of others. Sunshine combines the characters into one, with the same need to smuggle the body wrapped in a sheet-made shroud in the trunk of the car. Grapes has an odd brother who doesn't speak much and eventually leaves the family part way through the journey, walking off to follow a river, never to see his family again. Sunshine likewise has a brother who has taken a vow of silence, and nearly leaves the family as well.
The similarities are too present for me to ignore--and they make me take the movie a bit more seriously than just the offbeat, grotesque comedy it seems to be at face-value. It seems to unmask something about contemporary North American culture today: the state of the family, the absurdity of the American dream...
There is without doubt a stark ugliness to the movie. And the characters are certainly involved in insipid pursuits. But something deeper is definitely going on. As in Grapes, none of their dreams are realized. But they do discover their love for one another in the midst of their defeats. "There are two kinds of people in the world," the father pontificates, "winners and losers." Well, this family is a family of losers, alright. Certainly by the standards of the American Dream. And yet, despite their losses, they do seem to come away with something more.