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A Road Trip of Mundane Dreams: The Transubstantiation of ‘Little Miss Sunshine’

I was about Olive’s (Abigail Breslin) age when I first watched Little Miss Sunshine. No, I shouldn’t have watched it at that age. But like Olive, I had to grow up being a child ahead of my own time. My mother was busy working. My father couldn’t care less. I hardly understood the plot, but at that age, I understood all I had to about that character. She was chubby, fond of dancing, part of a dysfunctional family, and liked ice cream. That ticked all of the boxes. 

In technical terms, how much can a child apprehend from a piece of art not meant for children, anyway? Colors, blurs, a Brazilian pronunciation of the half-translated title, Pequena Miss Sunshine. But when I think of that time, that film at that age, everything is blurred except for a clear feeling— there’s a calling of understanding. Like a strange bonding experience, my memory involves staring at Olive and noticing the screen staring back at me.

Abigail Breslin as Olive Hoover, Toni Colette as Sheryl Hoover, Steve Carell as Frank Ginsburg, and Greg Kinnear as Richard Hoover in Little Miss Sunshine (COURTESY: Searchlight Pictures)

Thanks to nostalgia, there are two versions of Little Miss Sunshine in my head. The blurred, abstract yellowness from childhood and the concrete, naivety-shattering realizations that a mature rewatch brings. Because of these unique circumstances, I feel like I had the rare privilege of seeing this gorgeous project from its two crucial lenses: I’ve seen the American dream from Olive’s perspective, and now I see it from the adults’ point of view. 

In the summer of 2022, I realized it was high time to revisit a movie I remembered with so much fondness, even though I didn’t remember it at all. Two in one, the movie became a romanticized representation of my days of innocence and far-flung dreams. At the same time, it is now a comforting reminder that the heaviness of life is absurdly mundane. 

Like going back to your hometown and seeing it from the point of view of your parents instead of a child, my rewatch was a rite of passage. I was no longer Olive’s age. I was 22 and finding Frank (Steve Carell) too relatable. Concerningly and deeply relatable. I found Dwight (Paul Dano) oddly similar to my teenage years. I understood my father’s struggles a bit better, I noticed the frustration in my mother’s passiveness. I saw my late grandma Maria – who raised me and individually supported my hobbies – in Alan Arkin’s performance and shed some tears that are now even more bittersweet due to his passing. 

And then there was Olive. Watching Abigail Breslin in this movie might be the weirdest cinematic experience I have ever had. Like an amazingly well-produced home video, the screen no longer stared back at me. I saw my younger self there. I looked at her fondly, I smiled at her naivety and optimism. Where did that go? Is it all truly gone? It pains me to think that it is. That’s something I don’t want to believe in. 

But I must ask Olive to excuse me for a while as I turn to the adults, our mundane dreams, and the nostalgic power instilled in the film. Little Miss Sunshine makes the point that whatever we are chasing in the future is intimately tied to the past. Perhaps not our pasts, but our societal past. We don’t chase a future on its merit; we seek one that mimics yore’s glorious days. At least we are told to seek it, anyway. The American days of yore. A blur, an abstract memory, a feeling that is chased. A lie? 

Still from Little Miss Sunshine (COURTESY: Searchlight Pictures)

By the parameters of the American dream, this is a family of losers. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is not only the victim of the “believe you’ll succeed and you will” mindset but also a propeller of such. The irony of his motivational lectures in squalid rooms and an uninterested audience is noticeable. He believes in being a winner, the old story in the book, but Bryan Cranston’s Stan shoots his ideas down and continues to win, simple as that. 

Next to him, Sheryl (Toni Colette) doesn’t seem to be living the life she envisioned for herself. Even if she wanted to be a housewife in the first place, it’s hard to imagine that what she has is what she longed for. She misses being a girl, but all she can be now is a woman. Bills to pay, a little girl to raise, stress and frustration bottled in a silent scream. There’s an awful lot of nostalgic glory that was promised to her by the deceitful world of advertising, ad men, mad men. She was promised the sexist perfectionism that is sold in the shape of a roast dinner, but she’s a middle-class mom in America. She buys fried chicken and serves them on disposable plates. She can only do the best she can. 

In Edwin (Alan Arkin) lies the representation of the days now gone. A war veteran, he is the biggest scar in the nostalgic fabric of America. He’s the retired boomer from your local neighborhood. A flawed grandfather who, perhaps, sees in Olive the lightness from his youth, before the war. He instills some of it in her before he’s gone. An unconscious attempt, maybe, to make his nostalgia less about glory and more about hope.

Frank and Dwight, like reflections of each other, share both determination and pain in their silence. Dwight’s present might be Frank’s past, but the ache for something they feel like they lost is what bonds them. All of the potential, discipline, study, and work, always to get ahead of themselves but seemingly always falling behind. They should be winners, in the capitalist sense of the word. Life, however, told them they were not enough winners. It’s selfish to say, but there’s something comforting about knowing your pain is not alien to this world, and that you’re not the only one feeling it. The ache these two characters share is also shared with the audience. To me, Frank’s story hits home, for romantic, academic, and mental health reasons. Are they losers? They’re the types of people I wish I had as friends when I was a lonely teenager. Friends I wish I had now. They’ll never be losers in my book. 

All of these characters experience a nostalgic craving for the American dream. But that’s smoke and mirrors. It has always been because it does not account for life circumstances. Bills are too expensive, so is the roast dinner, and there’s no time to make dinner anyway, so you buy takeout. Offers keep being rejected repeatedly, academic prestige can’t save your life, and your dreams are shattered because of formalities and events beyond your control. 

Abigail Breslin as Olive Hoover in Little Miss Sunshine (COURTESY: Searchlight Pictures)

Little Miss Sunshine has, at its core, the bottled frustration of contemporary times — the chase of a nostalgic ideal as a road trip of mundane dreams. We run and run, and run. We run fueled by our private, unique nostalgia(s). I’ve been thinking about this running. I look around and see so many of us filled with the hopelessness of the current state of the world. 2006 hits too close to 2023. Haven’t we all been running lately? Pushing that old, yellow van, running along with those characters, chasing mundane dreams. 

But then, despite this sense of disappointment, there’s a spark. A memento from climbing trees, laughing out loud in the dark, eating ice cream in the summer with your best friend. A flash of a person or a pet who is no longer by your side, riding your bike, going to the cinema for the first time. The nostalgia within us, so toughly entwined in our core that the lies and the hopelessness cannot reach, will never reach. It’s ours to hold. Light, optimistic, resilient, naive. I like to call this feeling Olive. 

My rewatch allowed me to relate to the pain of adulthood, but it also made me realize that along with it, what I saw in Olive lives on. The feeling from my first watch is still here. It’s a blur and an invitation. Yes, we run. But we also dance. Olive invites us to dance. To dance in honor of our childhoods, to let go, to relieve some of the weight we carry. We can all still dance. Perhaps that has been the point of this road trip all along. 

I was, and I remain, so much of Olive. I have grown up, I carry a neurodivergent variety of pain, and I fail at coping with reality many times, but the starry-eyed little girl with glasses lives on. She needs to know she’s pretty. She keeps applying for Master’s programs like they are beauty contests. She keeps dancing because she likes it. She needs to know she’s pretty because she needs to keep trying. And not every day, but once in a while, I do my best to try to tell her, just like I would like to tell Olive, that she is. 

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