JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Little Miss Sunshine transposes the narrative of re-foundation articulated by Ford in The Grapes of Wrath, onto the peculiar saga of the Hoover family in their wandering journey from New Mexico to California.

 

The Joads are clearly reflected in the Hoovers, a dysfunctional family who wears the name of the “prosperity” President. They set out as well for a mythical land in pursuit of a dream: the unlikely victory of seven-year-old Olive in a national child beauty pageant modeled on Miss America.

 

Like the Okies in Grapes of Wrath, the three generations of the Hoover family face a calamitous financial future and travel in a clapped-out van. They suffer similar setbacks along their way across three Western states.

 

... Shortages of food.

 

... Run-ins with the police.

... The death of the grandfather.

... And a hostile welcome and great disappointment when they finally arrive in California.

California, the land of promises, may be the most fitting place to set a meditation on the meaning of success in a time of crisis. When they arrive at the hotel, the Hoovers enter a contest staged beneath a patriotic flag. Little girls from across the country are required to behave as miniature beauty queens. “America the Beautiful” sung by the MC is symptomatic of an uneasy social mindset, where the quest for success has been reduced to the triumph of image and appearance.

The Hoovers become the target of the audience’s rage when Olive innocently performs a provocative dance. The family’s spontaneous response in getting up on stage with her performs a miracle. For the first time, they come together in a shared success: the reuniting of the family.

Little Miss Sunshine denounces social bankruptcy allegorically. Richard and Sheryl have an argument at the motel, while their teenage son watches on TV the image of George W. Bush: an apex of confrontation between two divided Americas during the erupting crisis.

 

 

“Indiewood”: re-imagining the U.S. home

Ford’s and Capra’s use of the image of home may be summarized in three ways. First, their work reconciles the antitheses in the threefold set of binaries noted by Ray, wherein the victorious individual adventurer is set in contrast to the ordinary domestic hero committed to his community. Second, the family home is expanded out into the national home, which in effect marks a historical return to the narrative of the nation’s foundation. Finally, the fate of the family home is identified with the destiny of U.S. society in a time of crisis, a link enabled by people’s acute social consciousness. The reach of this filmic reimagining may be gauged in terms of the number of filmgoers: in the New Deal years, an average of eighty million viewers went to the cinema every week.

The survival of the archetype of home may be seen more recently in the films made by Dayton, Faris, Reitman and McCarthy, whose modern narratives of economic crisis have roots in the older filmic countercurrent of the 1930s and 1940s. These filmmakers belong to a more independent-minded stream in U.S. cinema, which has been shaped by a commitment to the national cultural, political and ideological landscape, and also is marked by a challenging and engaged approach to social issues, one often otherwise occluded by Hollywood’s commercial interests. In the images of home depicted in Little Miss Sunshine, The Visitor, Up in the Air and Win Win, these four filmmakers have explored the social dynamic of a nation, first demoralized by the 9/11 attacks and seven years later, convulsed again during an economic collapse of global dimensions.

The current social dynamic has many parallels with economic, social and political conflicts in the Great Depression. First, the two periods are marked by a financial collapse caused by the greed of the financial class, under the guise of a false prosperity. Second, middle-class households are the major victim of bankruptcies that call into question the American Dream, now no longer a commonplace. Finally, the two phenomena occur within the conservative Presidential terms of Hebert Hoover and George W. Bush. Given national social impoverishment, narratives of crisis emerge in Hollywood as a specific reaction, a complaint.  As Lay and May note, home is the object of attack but at the same time as the key to recovering social prosperity.

As a universal myth, the search for home or the quest to rebuild home is not bound by time; it may be situated in any culture, historical era and/or social context. Nevertheless, as discussed above, this re-imagined archetype may enrich the social discourse of narratives concerning the current crisis, lending new meanings and connotations. Although they draw on a timeless premise in the narratives they produce, the films by Dayton, Faris, Reitman and McCarthy distance themselves from the classical style of Hollywood, characterized by a poetics of closed endings. These filmmakers favor techniques that have more in common with the rhetoric of contemporary independent filmmaking. According to King (2005: 63), they prefer

“devices designed to deny, block, delay or complicate the anticipated development of narrative, to reduce clarity or resolution and in some cases to increase narrative self-consciousness.”

The four films analyzed here are character-driven stories and, given their endings, Up in the Air cannot be regarded simply as a romance nor can Win Win be seen solely as a sports movie.

In spite of this open-ended approach to screenwriting, the four scripts are underscored with a Capraesque form of optimistic comedy. In most cases, conflicts are resolved leading to positive outcomes in line with the hopeful tone of the archetype first shaped during the New Deal period. Indeed, King cites the ending to Little Miss Sunshine as an emblematic example of the happy endings in Indiewood movies, a sort of independent filmmaking that, for commercial reasons, must make some concessions to the demands of the studios (King, 2009: 270).

At the same time, these four filmmakers retain the three keystones of the domestic imagination (family, struggle, nation) within an epic, (re)constructive context and in the face of social setbacks stemming from the economic crisis. This approach marks their work as different from a particular kind of individualist and ominous vision, commonly used in postmodern cinema. That other current trend is characterized by Boggs and Pollard thusly (2003: 246):

“Postmodernism reflects and feeds into a generalized mood of pessimism and defeat associated with widespread popular retreat from the public sphere—a trend visible in film as well as society as a whole. In the splintered, discontinuous world of postmodernism, social bonds linked to community and collective action are severely weakened, further undoing the linkage between the personal and public arenas.”

Little Miss Sunshine: “America the Beauty”

The first example I want to explore appears in 2006 during the first signs of the financial crisis. Little Miss Sunshine deals with the theme of failure as experienced by the members of a lower middle class family, recently impoverished. They are an antithetical symbol of the American Dream.

By means of a road movie—a true U.S. film genre—Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have offered one of the most striking examples of the domestic archetype set during the current crisis. Little Miss Sunshine transposes the distinctive version of the narrative of re-foundation articulated by Ford in The Grapes of Wrath onto the peculiar saga of the Hoover family in their wandering journey from New Mexico to California. Despite the seventy-year lapse in time, the Joads are clearly reflected in the members of another dysfunctional family who set out for a mythical land in pursuit of their dream: the unlikely victory of seven-year-old Olive in a national child beauty pageant modeled on Miss America.

Screenwriter Michael Arndt follows the formula outlined by Nunnally Johnson— juxtapose a domestic crisis with a crisis at a national level. At the heart of both plots is the narrative trope of the return home of the U.S. hero, as described by MacKey-Kallis. Like the Okie Joads in Steinbeck’s novel, the three generations of the Hoover family are likewise facing a calamitous financial future. They travel in a clapped-out van, suffering similar setbacks as they make their way across three Western states: death of the grandfather; run-ins with the police; shortage of food; problems with the van’s engine, and worst of all a hostile welcome and great disappointment when they finally arrive in California. The family surname, Hoover, is an obvious reference to “Hoovervilles,” the drab shantytowns spontaneously appearing during the Great Depression. Like Ford’s 1940 adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, the plot of Little Miss Sunshine is based on the idea of an allegorical journey with a twofold goal: first and foremost, the quest for success; and second, the reconstruction of a broken and wayward home. Both objectives give rise to a re-imagined account of the never-ending American Dream and revised versions of ideas of success and failure, in which home is the shared narrative and social literary topos. Although Little Miss Sunshine is a comedy, its makers have established themselves as documentarists, and there are many touches of realism and truthfulness with which they represent the different situations and social settings that the Hoover family experiences on the road (Smith 66).

In Little Miss Sunshine, the individual/community binary is framed in terms of a conflict of perspectives between Richard and Sheryl Hoover, characters who recall the roles of Pa and Ma Joad. Richard has invested all the family’s savings in a self-help manual, a guide to personal success following the American Dream that will in fact destroy his own home. While he was writing the script for the movie, Michael Arndt heard a statement by Arnold Schwarzenegger, then Governor of California, remarking that the only thing he hated in the world were losers. Arndt contested this:

“I wanted to attack the idea that we could only be divided into winners and losers, which inspired the character of Richard, Olive’s father” (Goldsmith, 2007: 68).

Sheryl is the polar opposite of Richard, a figure who ultimately undermines her husband. As a mother, she struggles to keep the family together, and is determined to go on the journey to California so as to keep Olive’s dream alive. When the grandfather dies, her words echo thoughts once spoken by Ma Joad:

“Whatever happens, we’re a family. And what’s important is that we love one each other.”

At the end of their journey, the Hoover family does not encounter the anger of Californian vineyard laborers as the Joads had. But they do experience a similar kind of scorn, a harsh sense that they are not welcome. At the film’s climax, during the beauty pageant, the conflict between Richard and Sheryl concerning the meaning of success takes on a national dimension, a shift that discloses the hostile conditions of social life reduced to a contest between “perfect” children. At the children’s beauty pageant final in Los Angeles, the Hoovers become the target of the audience’s rage when Olive innocently performs a provocative dance taught to her by the grandfather. The family’s spontaneous response is to get up on stage with her and take part in the performance. Their public act of solidarity with Olive evinces how the family dynamic has been transformed. For the first time, free of shame and embarrassment for their own failures, they come together in a shared success: the reuniting of the family, with Olive at its heart.

California, the land of promises, may be the most fitting place to set a cinematic meditation on the meaning of success in a time of crisis. When they arrive at the hotel, the Hoovers are exposed to the pathos of a contest staged beneath a patriotic flag. There, little girls from across the country are required to behave as miniature beauty queens. A flamboyant version of the anthem “America the Beautiful” sung by the MC is symptomatic of an uneasy social mindset. Here the quest for success has been reduced to the triumph of image and appearance, and it’s a place where people—in this case, young girls—are dehumanized and seen as objects. In a sociological reading of the film, Beck highlights the moral superiority of the Hoover family, who embody a set of heroic values that renders them similar to the Joads—in particular, the way in which they succeed in overcoming their sense of being losers in an inhumane, overly-competitive society:

“In this movie, the joke is on the mainstream world of success and efficacy, warped, ambitious, spiteful, and lonely. The dysfunctional family, bless their hearts, in contrast, are warm, happy and together. Here, the conventional movie sentimentality prevails. The minority outsiders are blessed, and the callous, persecuting dominant group is the accursed one” (Beck, 2007: 30-31).

Released in the aftermath of 9/11, Little Miss Sunshine reflects a collapse in social, moral and human values that foreshadow the dramatic economic downturn. The script underscores the link between family breakdown and the social dysfunction of the United States as a whole, and it echoes the story of the Joads in asserting the need for a collective journey, a return home. In the narrative envisioned by Dayton and Faris, the solution to the Hoovers’ unhappiness and frustration, setting aside their economic, existential or professional problems, is to be found in an act of domestic solidarity that ought to be extrapolated onto the national stage.

The political dimension of the script is reflected symbolically, and it takes place at the family/national home level. In my view, the social bankruptcy denounced here is allegorically expressed in a discussion that Richard and Sheryl have at the motel, while their teenage son watches on television the image of George W. Bush. The Presidential icon represents, in this scene, the apex of confrontation between two divided Americas on the scenario of the erupting crisis.

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