Little Miss Sunshine: A Feel-Good Lesson On How To Embrace Being A Loser, Film Companion

I love dramas centered around families. Correction, I love dramas centered around dysfunctional families. What a great way to flesh out and explore characters through the chaos. Could you make it better? Add a road trip to it! Confine the characters with each other for a long period of time in a van as knackered as their interpersonal relationships. What could go wrong?

What I love about Little Miss Sunshine is how it is the antithesis of the ‘feel-good’ family movie –  with fairly imperfect characters. The parents keep fighting and are on the verge of divorce and bankruptcy. The grandfather is a drug addict. The depressed uncle attempts suicide, fails, and is now stuck with his sister’s family. As for the kids – Dwayne is a Neitzsche-reading teen on a vow of silence till he becomes a pilot and Olive is an impressionable seven-year-old whose chance to participate in a beauty contest drives the narrative forward. That’s the Hoovers-Ginsburg combo for you. And yet they deliver a pertinent life lesson – we’re all losers in one form or another. Embrace it, make the best of your circumstances and support each other in your quest for personal fulfilment.

The opening sequence of the film introduces all the characters and their desires. Olive stands in front of a television set, with wonder in her eyes, imitating the movements of a beauty pageant winner. Dwayne is dedicatedly working out in his room, trying to stay fit. The father, Richard, is a life coach/motivator trying to sell his ‘Nine-step NEVER TO LOSE’ program. Throughout the film, Richard speaks in the methodological language of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ only. He keeps throwing around qualities ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ possess. And here’s the important part – Nobody gets what they really want by the end. Instead, they face the worst they could imagine. Richard’s program doesn’t sell and he ‘loses’ miserably. Dwayne learns he’s colourblind and hence cannot be a pilot. Sheryl’s (the mother) worst fears of going bankrupt are about to materialise. Frank has to unexpectedly face his unrequited love and see someone else achieve the scholarly applause he thinks he deserves. Olive doesn’t win the pageant. The grandpa, well, has a great exit and sure leaves his mark on everyone. But here’s the point the film makes – it’s not the end of the world.


The family members, in all their eccentricities, have an important realisation – accept the lesson that failure brings. They accept themselves, their situations, and each other, and decide to make the best of it. Despite clashing arguments and ideologies, they come together in the end to achieve other things – whether it’s to keep a deadbeat van moving, stealing a dead body from the hospital, or backing up Olive at her dance performance at the pageant.

The beauty pageant sequence is so crucial because it highlights the toxicity of viewing everything in life from the perspective of winning or losing and the hyper-competitiveness that is ingrained by the society in our brains. Children are made to compete with each other – the winner would inadvertently be the one viewed as having the most ‘value’. Young girls are sexualised and the audience cheers on, but Olive’s performance on ‘Super Freak’ makes them uncomfortable as her personality, song choice and choreography question their designed criteria. In this moment, the family members embrace their inner freaks and stand up for Olive, ensuring her self-esteem and innocence aren’t crushed by the weight of societal expectations, the way theirs have been. The absurdity of performing according to society’s standards to be treated as a person of value, hits home. Dwayne states at one point, “Fuck beauty contests. Life is one fucking beauty contest after another. You know – school, then college, then work…You do what you love, and fuck the rest.”

By the end, Richard begins to see the farcicality of his ways. Frank and Dwayne strike an unlikely friendship. Sheryl is happy to see them all together. They ensure Olive’s uniqueness isn’t overpowered by insecurities and she fulfills her dream of participating in a beauty pageant. She gets to complete her practiced routine on the stage – paying tribute to her grandpa, who for sure has a lingering presence. The family breaks free from the cycle of trying to be winners in the eyes of others.

Little Miss Sunshine: A Feel-Good Lesson On How To Embrace Being A Loser, Film Companion

Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.

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