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Little Miss Sunshine

Sally Davis. PhD

I found the ending of this movie great--the way they just start pushing that van down the road again.  I also was really taken when the family jumps on stage to dance--it seemed the most satisfying resolution to me.  In thinking about the movie, I wanted to understand why that scene had such an impact and also to put into words exactly what it was about that beauty pageant that was so disturbing and so creepy.

The screenwriter, Michael Arndt, said he was inspired to write the script after he heard a quote from a speech Arnold Schwarzenegger gave to high school students.  Arnold said:  "I hate losers.  I despise everything about them."   Michael Arndt wanted to lampoon that idea and 'look at all the crazy ways we find to compete.'  Nothing, he figured, could be a more absurd competition that a child's beauty contest.

It's a simple movie, it's not obscure.  Yet I think it gives a very nice chance to explore all the fears people have of being a Loser: of really facing and feeling loss.  And it also lets us see the enormous cost that results when we don't let ourselves lose, mourn the loss and move on, hopefully in a more integrated, deeply connected way in our lives.

As the movie opens, we meet the characters, each in solitary pursuit of some buoyant victory or, as in Frank's case, devastated by loss and failure.  Olive is practicing being a winner, alone in front of the tv, miming Miss America's joyful crowning.  Dwayne is rigorously exercising, with steely focus, cloistered in his room, marking off another day in his silent regimen.  Frank is sitting in a wheelchair, looking bleak, devastated and all alone in the world.  Richard is giving a triumphant speech on how to be a winner, entitled Refuse to Lose, seemingly oblivious to his sparse and bored audience.  Sheryl is frantically trying to take care of everyone and keep the family afloat.  And Granddad is hidden away, snorting heroin and getting high.

They look so alone, driven, maybe pitiful.  What's going on here?  What's so hard for this family?

We learn that Olive wants to do the routine her granddad taught her, win dad's love and make her family proud.  Dwayne wants to fly away into his own life and be nothing like his flawed family.  Franks wanted the boy he loved to love him.  Richard needs to help support his family financially and, most important, not be a Loser.  And then there's Granddad, who, after many apparently misspent years, isn't sure he wants to be around and tries to make the most of the time he has left.

All these things are understandable and even expectable developmental events.  Yet each of the people seems so isolated, so pressured, so alienated.  As Dwayne writes in one of his great pen-and-paper messages:  Welcome to hell.

So, what are the rings of this hell and why are they so stuck there?  Freud described what he called the 4 danger situations that he believed propelled all people from their cores:  The threat of losing the person you love.  The threat of losing the love of someone you love.  The threat of losing bodily integrity. And, finally, the threat of losing one's good view of oneself.  Freud called that super-ego threat--a feeling you've been bad, you've done something wrong.  A more contemporary view includes the notion of feeling ashamed or worthless, that we simply have no value left.

Each of these threatened losses, which we all have to face through the life cycle, in fantasy or in fact, are frustrating, painful, frightening and, if experienced, ultimately sad.  When people can't let themselves feel and emotionally digest these potential or actual losses, they get stuck.  They can get real stuck.

Modern psychoanalytic theory includes discussion of states of mind.  There are two states of mind I think are relevant here.  The first is a state of mind in which we have the capacity to let in real or threatened losses.  To accept the limit of our own capability to make the world just like we want it to be or to make ourselves just what we want to be and to feel the related frustration, anger, disappointment and sadness.  To ultimately accept the fact of the loss, it's pain and mourn it.  When we have that ability, we can then move on and invest emotionally in something else.  This is the good advice that Stan Grossman tried to give Richard by the pool when Richard asked, "So, what's the next step?"  Stan Grossman said, "there isn't one.  It's time to move on.  You're not going to win this one."  Richard couldn't bear that.

When we refuse to accept those painful facts and adamantly defend against all related feelings, we can get locked into a state of mind that can be described as schizoid.  This state of mind is one that is based on a deeply held desire, a wish that becomes a fantasy, maybe an illusion and then something like a delusion--a dead-set conviction that things are, will be, must be, exactly what one has in mind.  This world view excludes any information that's contradictory--what we might think of as useful feedback--or any other person's view of the world as inherently important, meaningful, valid in it's own right.  At the dinner table, Olive, who is very curious and caring, asks Frank what happened?  Why did he try to kill himself?

Frank gives a litany of losses that beautifully illustrates 3 of Freud's 4 danger situations.  To paraphrase:  Well, Olive, I fell in love with a boy who didn't love me back.  He fell in love with someone else who did love him back.  I said and did some things I shouldn't have done and then I lost my job.   The McArthur Foundation awarded the genius grant to the Other Man and then I tried to kill myself.

Richard can't begin to connect with, much less empathize with, Frank's story.  In fact, Frank's claiming all of his losses aloud threatens Richard to the core and galvanizes his most dearly held conviction, his fixed paradigm:  Refuse to Lose.  "The important thing to understand, Olive," he said, "is that Uncle Frank gave up on himself and that's something winners never do."  From this state of mind other people's experiences aren't important, interesting, enriching.  They're simply threats to be neutralized.  As Dwayne penned from his own silent fortress:  I hate everyone.  Underlined.

Clearly this family needed that 800 mile road trip.  They needed the pressure cooker of that van to soften up and break down those unrelenting, lonely solutions.  As their defensive armor loosens up, they're faced with their feelings and each other, and they have a chance for something different to happen.

Richard tries to shame and manipulate Olive about the ice cream and the family won't allow it.  As Granddad is faced with the relentless, painful maneuvers of his son doggedly trying to be a winner while his failures are undeniably visible, Granddad steps up and isn't a jerk.  He tries to guide and comfort his son by owning up to his own failure:  "Whatever happens you tried to do your own thing, that's more than most people ever do--myself included.  It took guts and I'm proud."  When Richard initially rebuffs him, Granddad doesn't react.  Richard seems to melt a little into the interaction with his dad and gain some comfort from him.

Olive tells Granddad, "I'm so scared to be a loser.  Daddy hates losers."  Again, Granddad rises to the occasion, "You're beautiful, Olive, on the inside and the outside.  A loser is someone who's so afraid of losing he doesn't even try."  That might've been the best day of Granddad's life.

And, of course, as Dwayne discovers his deficit, is confronted with his loss of body integrity, his color-blindness, we see a volcano of feelings erupt.  His rage, disappointment and sorrow about so much: his parents' divorce, his step-father's failings, his uncle's frightening suicide attempt.  After finally venting out loud so much of what he thinks and feels, Dwayne accepts the comforting touch of his sister and re-joins the family.

This gets us almost to the beauty contest where there really will be a winner crowned and losers left onstage.  It made me think, what's the reasonable way we try to get what we want in life, to win, to succeed?  We need ideas and ideals to inspire and guide us.  And these become our dreams, maybe at times an illusion or a seeming delusion as we strive to make a wish become a reality--to be a test pilot, a renowned Proust scholar, a successful entrepreneur, or to have a viable marriage, a happy family or to have the ones we love love us back, just like we want them to.  Then, of course, we have to be real.  We have to let the facts shine in and recognize we might not get our pen-ultimate goal.  We can be furious, disappointed, anguished and sad that our wishes don't come true.  You're not going to get to be a test pilot, maybe your marriage isn't going to work out like you hoped, maybe you wasted years in your life.  Or, maybe, you'll end up being the world's second leading expert on Proust.  Maybe you can be something else or love another person.  If we don't have too rigid a grip on a too literal trophy, we have a chance to adapt our ideals and find other good things.  This is an internal process and an interpersonal process we can see with individuals, couples and parents.

When a new mom or dad says, "Isn't he or she the most beautiful baby you've ever seen?!"  The listener knows exactly what they mean.  The baby is the world to them and is perfectly wonderful.  In the same way we can see individuals get stuck in a rigid definition of what they have to be, we can see parents get stuck about who or what their child has to be.  Does that child have to compete in, try to win, a "Most Beautiful" contest?

The scene where Richard watches the LMS competition is one of the best in the movie for me.  He looks so stunned, shocked, troubled, bewildered as he tries to get his mind around what he sees:  those little girls, with spray tans, make-up, hair pieces and fake teeth strutting around doing their 'sexy' walks, jumping and gyrating all over the stage like wind-up dolls with frozen smiles.  I think the pageant is so creepy because it is surreal.  Little girls don't look and act like that without adults' elaborate, fantasy driven intervention.  It's as if the contestants are embodied figments of someone else's imagination, dancing to someone else's tune.

In preparing for tonight I watched an excellent documentary called Living Dolls: the Making of a Child Beauty Contestant that followed a mother and daughter practicing and competing.  The mother didn't seem to have anything else in her life she invested in and valued. With her military background and hyper-competitiveness, she coached her little daughter like a drill sergeant.  It was a very disturbing interaction to watch because the mother seemed to be carrying out a desperate pursuit of a deeply needed illusion-solution through the person of her child.  There seemed to be no room for the child's mind, autonomy, individuality, agency or needs.

Because of Richard's refusal to accept defeat, he does get Olive to the LMS competition, where she has her heart set on being.  When Richard, Dwayne and Frank realize the threat that's lurking for Olive on that stage, they want to protect her.  Yet Olive really wants to go on with the show, so Mom says that great line:  let's let Olive be Olive.

I believe when the family jumps on stage and dances with her, as she does that incredible dance Granddad passed on to her, it is such a cathartic relief.  After 800 miles, the rigid isolation of these individuals has finally melted away and the bottled-up tension about who and what they must be suddenly has a great purpose and venue.  They're a family that's in it together, whatever it is.  And they're not trying to be anybody concretized version of a perfect winner or terrified of being someone's concretized version of an absolute loser.  Finally, on their road trip, they're having a good time together.