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Some thoughts on ‘Little Miss Sunsine’

This Oscar-winning film—about a rather flawed family that comes together to drive (in a just-as-flawed VW bus) the youngest of them (seven-year-old Olive) to a beauty pageant in California 600 miles away—has been sitting in DVD form on my shelf for over four months (yes, NetFlix is making a profit off me this summer), but we finally got around to watching it recently. There’s not much I can say that hasn’t already been said (links to and a collection of Christian reviews here and mainstream review collections here), so I’ll just blog what liked—and a little of what I didn’t.

Overall, I really enjoyed the film, especially the film’s overarching movement of and focus on transformation: the isolated individual lives of each family member begin to bump and clash with each other and yet—in a wonderful way—each ultimately weaves and intertwines into this rather unique family. (While the disfunction, eccentricities and damage of each family member is somewhat exagerated, I think that device softens us up to them and allows us to identify with shadows of the issues and dreams we share with them.) The film begins with a brief focus on each individual separate from the rest of family, introducing us to their personal struggles and/or aspirations. They aren’t strangers to each other, but they are rather self-involved. In the first scene of them riding along in their volkswagon, I wondered exactly how long it had been since they’d been on a vacation or trip together. But as they share the crises and obstacles associated with the trip, they also begin to soften to and empathize with each others’ individual crises and obstacles, ultimately exhibiting some pretty profound solidarity—the kind that only comes when love is shared.

That kind of tranformation can’t help but take place in this world and among us because that is part of our basic design—to be in relationship with and love each other. God made us that way, and he uses whatever circumstance comes along to invite us towards that kind of transformation, towards moving our focus off of ourselves and onto the others. That is one of the basic things that happens as we love. That doesn’t mean love is easy—oiy, this film makes that abundantly (though rather humorously) clear. Each of us is likely to grate against the other in some way—and some more than others. But given the chance (to borrow a turn of phrase) Love (like Life) “will out.”

One of my favorite moments in the film is admitedly sentimental, but an example of this. The teenage son—an existential, rather withdrawn and unhappy young man—has just found out that the dream he thought firm in his grasp has all but slipped away. He yells angrily at his family and then collapses in despair, sitting in the dirt by the side of the road as his father, mother, uncle and young sister Olive look on. No one knows what to do. Then his dad tells Olive to go talk to him, but instead, she simply sits down beside him, puts her small arm around his shoulders and lays her head on his arm. She doesn’t say a single word or make a sound. After a moment, he’s calmed and returns to the family, even apologizing for his outburst. Olive’s simple actions—ones of love and sympathy—are powerful, bringing to mind the calling of followers of Jesus: to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15). Sometimes words just don’t do it, and Olive—even with in her youth—knew that.

There are other echoes of truth in the film, like the wonder-ness of seven-year-old children who still have the capacity to walk in a world where they take for granted that the beauty on the inside is on the outside too. Or that familes—including those formed within the Kingdom—are made up flawed people in whom love transforms. And that in spite of the disfunction and messiness of life, love can pull we pathetically disfunctional and damaged folk out of our own self-absorbtion to support, love and protect each other.

One last thought has to do with children’s beauty pagents, with which I’ve long been uncomfortable. This film does a thorough job of uncovering the basis for that discomfort—though I wish Olive’s cringe-worthy performance could have been done differently. But, in context of the film (and the comments its making about these kinds of pageants), I’m not sure how.

On that note, I should add there is plenty of foul language and adult content during the conversations in the film. Beyond these elements, however, a pretty good story is told—one I found worth watching.

Note: Here is the blurb Christianity Today (whose reveiwer gave the film 3—out of 4—stars) adds to the film review: “Little Miss Sunshine is rated R for language, some sex and drug content. A foul-mouthed grandpa, sight gags involving the covers of porn magazines, heroin usage, frank discussion of suicide, and an innocent-yet-cringe-inducing pretend "strip tease" by a 7-year-old (she still has clothes on when she's done) all put the film firmly in R territory.” If you’re unsure about a film, it’s this blog’s suggestion that you read reviews from those you trust before you see it.

(Images: copyrighted by Fox Searchlight Pictures)