It becomes increasingly hard to love yourself as you age. When entering this world, you are solipsistic; you are the only thing that matters. With age, you become more aware of your surroundings, and you learn everything there is to learn. But in adolescence, there comes a time when suddenly you only think of yourself in relation to others: what others think of you, how others see you, how the world judges you. In Little Miss Sunshine, Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) is at that crucial age before the downfall of self-esteem, seeing herself as a star. Her confidence is a rarity among young girls, and by the film’s end, her family ensures she keeps it despite her budding self-doubt, preventing the teenage trap of never-ending comparisons between yourself and your peers.
The first scene puts the entire film on full-display, with Olive preparing her face for when, not if, she wins first place at a beauty pageant. She sees herself as the impossibly gorgeous women on-screen, made-up to wear a crown, and receiving the title of “Miss America.” The audience can tell Olive is nothing like these women: she’s chubby, she wears glasses, and, most importantly, she’s only seven years old. Yet here she is, along with an entire family that is blatantly not like the ones you see on-screen: her father Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker for an audience of “tens”; her mother Sheryl (Toni Collette) cannot quit smoking; her uncle Frank (Steve Carell) is recovering from a suicide attempt after his grad student rejected him and fell in love with his academic rival; her brother Dwayne (Paul Dano) is taking a vow of silence until he can join the Air Force and go to flight school; her grandfather Edwin (Alan Arkin) is addicted to heroin.
These characters are viewed as losers by those around them and by themselves, however, Olive doesn’t see them this way. When the family is seated for dinner, Frank is embarrassed by the scars from his suicide attempt, but Olive shows genuine concern, her heart breaking seeing bandages around his wrists. Rather than think of her family in comparison to others, she welcomes them, never shying away from their faults or embarrassed by their mistakes.
She loves her family and they love her. When she gets the call to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, she knows they’ll support her all the way. She’s too excited to think they might not, running fervently to pack while Richard and Sheryl argue about taking her. Sheryl is adamant in letting her pursue her dream despite Richard’s apprehension; because if it makes Olive happy, that happiness — more than the judgment of others — is what matters.
An agreement is reached, and the Hoovers are off, driving in their bright yellow, barely functioning van. Each member of the family is at their own point of self-acceptance, with Dwayne rejecting those around him, Frank terrified of the perception of his colleagues and peers, and Richard, in all his efforts to create “winners” of the whole family and sell his plan for success, desperately trying to fit in with the world around him. Richard places societal pressures and views on the family, demoralizing them, and planting seeds of self-hatred in Olive. It’s because of Richard’s Type-A personality that the family endures him as a proxy for the outside world.
In the scene that begins Olive’s self-doubt, the family is seated at a diner’s rest stop. Olive proudly orders waffles à la mode. Richard stops her excitement and states ice cream makes you fat, that women in Miss America are skinny, and if Olive wants to be like them she should avoid it. She pushes her ice cream away, only for the rest of the family to take bites to entice her. Richard isn’t wrong about the eating habits of beauty pageant contestants, but he’s cruel for forcing Olive to fit in with society’s ideals of beauty. Olive retains her confidence, but Richard’s desire for perfection starts to wear her down. Olive doesn’t think of herself in relation to others until Richard’s strict binary of winners and losers starts to set in.
Olive spends the most time with Edwin, a man so secure in himself that he shamelessly snorts heroin and talks openly about sex. In being so close with him, cracks appear in her self-esteem, and, as a chubby seven-year-old girl with dreams of fame and fortune, her questioning her beauty hits particularly hard. When the family stops at a motel for the night, as Edwin tucks Olive in, he’s shocked to hear her ask if she’s pretty. His answer, that he loves her not for her brains or personality but for her beauty, is misguided, but it acknowledges that beauty has nothing to do with looking like others. She cries, saying that Richard hates losers and she fears being one; here we see the conflict of society’s ideals against innate human difference. Richard is society’s paragons of beauty, love, and success set against Edwin’s difference in appearance, attitude, and experience.
That night Richard’s entire character shifts when Stan Grossman (Bryan Cranston) cannot sell Richard’s winners plan under the pretense that nobody knows or cares about Richard; and Edwin overdoses and dies. Richard was so desperate to sell his plan, only to have Stan reinforce his fear that society views the entire family as losers. When the hospital staff pronounce Edwin dead and tell the family that they can’t take the remains across state lines, Richard decides to steal him. He uses his same ideology about winners and losers to justify the choice, but it’s the first time he accepts his difference from those around him. Richard embraces difference for the sake of Olive, choosing her wishes over upholding societal standards.
The trip is stopped again when Olive gives Dwayne an eye test from a pamphlet and discovers that he’s colorblind, shattering his dream to fly jets. Dwayne erupts in violence and, when the van pulls over, he darts away, screaming his first lines of dialogue in the film. He curses and cries, calling the entire family a bunch of losers that he hates; the words hurt Sheryl and quietly destroy Olive. The last thing Olive wants to be is a loser. Her love, in the form of a silent hug, is the only thing that gets through to him.
When the family finally crashes into the pageant at full speed, it’s a race to get Olive registered. A woman that clearly hates the look of them turns them down for being five minutes late but another worker sees no problem in letting Olive register. Olive and Sheryl move to get an autograph from Miss California who’s judging the competition. Olive asks, with a hint of fear, if she eats ice cream — Miss California enthusiastically says yes, and Olive lights up with affirmation.
Richard and Dwayne beg Sheryl to not let Olive go on; she looks nothing like the overly made-up children being forced to compete, and they refuse to let her be a part of a system that sexualizes little girls. Behind the curtain of the dressing room, in a single shot, Olive stands surrounded by mirrors, all of her insecurities about her appearance and class now confronted. She sucks in her stomach and we fear that societal ideals of beauty and conformity have finally caught up with her.
Olive makes her choice and performs her routine — a definitely too scandalous dance set to ‘Super Freak’ she learned from Edwin — dancing to her heart’s content while the audience boos. When the event’s host tries to pull Olive offstage, Richard jumps to her defense. Eventually, the whole family is dancing on stage with her.
Throughout the film, Olive becomes less and less self-assured, quieter and quieter, until she explodes on stage in an act of pure joy through dance. When her family joins her in an uncoordinated mess, it’s clear they’ve all learned to accept themselves for who they are; more than that, they’re refusing to let Olive be anything less than herself.
Olive is a young girl with a support system that refuses to let her succumb to society’s expectations of beauty and behavior, something sorely needed by most young girls before they reach full adolescence. Knowing what beauty pageants are like, there’s a fear that Olive will walk away in tears, with a new drive to change everything about herself to look, sound, and act like other girls. Young girls are so often forced into maintaining a standard of beauty so unrealistic and painful that it makes being a teen brutal; all you want to do is look like other people. The Hoovers refuse to let Olive think she’s lesser than any other girl or let others’ judgments determine her choices. In this, they teach Olive the most important lesson a young girl can learn: being different is beautiful.