"Little Miss Sunshine" Analysis

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 2416 |

Pages: 5|

13 min read

Published: May 19, 2020

Words: 2416|Pages: 5|13 min read

Published: May 19, 2020

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Main Issues
  3. Family Systems Theory
  4. Conclusion
  5. Works Cited


The movie Little Miss Sunshine provides an amusing and honest portrayal of a typical American family. This Caucasian, middle-class family embarks on a disaster filled road trip, to take seven-year-old Olive from their home town Albuquerque, New Mexico to the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in Redondo Beach, California. During their eight-hundred-mile trek, the Hoover’s, which consists of Richard, Sheryl, Olive, and Dwayne, as well as Sheryl’s brother Frank and Richard’s aging father Edwin, grow into a more understanding and communicative family, while in a breaking down, yellow 1970s Volkswagen van. Richard and Sheryl Hoover are at the center of the Hoover family.

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Richard, who seems to be in his mid-forties, does not have a stable job, but is trying to pursue a career as a motivational writer and speaker. As a part of this effort, Richard frequently pesters his children about how people are either winners or losers. Richard created a nine-step, “Refuse to Lose” program, that helps people become a winner. While he annoys his family with rude comments about becoming a winner, he himself is trying to become a winner by publishing a book about his nine steps. If his book is published, it will help his family stop struggling financially. He has convinced Sheryl it is just a matter of time before his book is published and their family can stop struggling financially. He is also Sheryl’s second husband. Sheryl presents as the caring, mediator of the family, as well as brings in their main source of income.

Though the circumstances differ, the problems facing the Hoovers are not rare. Research has shown that issues surrounding finances, ways of dealing with children, and sexual issues are among the most common problems confronting couples at mid-life (Miller and Miller, 2004). Olive and Dwayne are Richard and Sheryl’s’ children. Olive is their biological child, and Dwayne is Sheryl’s son from a previous marriage. Olive is a cheerful, curious, and sweet seven-year-old girl. She became the runner up for the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant while visiting Sheryl’s sister in California during her last spring break vacation.

Since then, Olive has become infatuated with beauty pageants. So, when Olive advances higher in the rankings, Richard and Sheryl decide to take her at the last minute to Redondo Beach, California to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. Very differently, Dwayne, an intelligent and aspiring, fifteen-year-old adolescent, has not spoken a word for nine months. He took a vow of silence to not speak until he reaches his goal of leaving home and joining the Air Force. He also does not often visit his unidentified biological father, who lives in Florida. Dwayne likes to read the works of Nietzsche, communicates with his family using a pad of paper, and is counting the days, 473, until he can leave his family, who he says he hates.

Recently, for incidental reasons, two additional family members joined the Hoover family household. They are Edwin, Richard’s father, who is a heroin addict, and Frank, Sheryl’s brother who just attempted suicide. Edwin is a World War II veteran and is probably in his 70s. He was recently evicted from his retirement home for doing heroin. So, Edwin moved in with Richard and Sheryl for financial reasons. While Richard and Sheryl are away from the house during the day, he has been working with Olive, helping her prepare a dance routine for Albuquerque’s upcoming Little Miss Chile Pepper contest. In contrast, Frank, Sheryl’s brother, recently experienced the following traumas prior to moving in with the Hoovers: a failed relationship with a younger man, getting fired from a high-status job, evictions from an apartment and a hotel, and a suicide attempt.

Main Issues

Every member of the Hoover family is dealing with both developmental and circumstantial crises that ratchet up the intrapersonal and interpersonal pressures at work within the family. In fact, the dramatic impact and comedic effectiveness of Little Miss Sunshine emerge naturally from the deft handling, in terms of writing, directing, and acting, of commonly experienced intrapersonal and interpersonal crises. To begin with, Richard appears to be passing through what Erickson would call the “generativity vs. stagnation” stage of personal development, or what is more commonly known as a mid-life crisis (Gladding, p. 12). Richard’s life and career have not turned out the way he had hoped, so he has become obsessed with the idea that there are only winners and losers in life and that he is a winner. Richard’s developmental crisis is symbolized by the revealing name of his nine-step program for being a winner: “Refuse to Lose. ”

In other words, Richard thinks that being a “winner” in life is as easy as refusing to be a “loser. ” The early part of the film makes it clear that every member of Richard’s family is having a hard time coping with Richard and his unhealthy obsession with being a “winner. ”Sheryl, Richard’s wife, is also dealing with the generativity vs. stagnation stage of development (Gladding, p. 12), but her struggles manifest themselves differently than Richard’s. She has better coping skills, so she is able to work full-time, pay the bills, and take care of everyone else in her blended, multigenerational family. As Richard’s mid-life crisis has taken hold of his life, their marriage, and their family she has struggled to keep their family together and remain positive and supportive, since she acts as though her family means a lot to her. Having to care for Edwin and Frank, who are experiencing developmental and circumstantial crises of their own, has placed Richard and Sheryl’s marriage under even more emotional and financial pressure. However, parenting Olive and Dwayne with Richard, who is not Dwayne’s biological father, is also becoming more of a challenge to Sheryl as the children go through developmental crises of their own. Developmentally, Olive is becoming more aware of what it means to be a girl who is growing into a young woman in North American society. Central to Olive’s developmental crisis are the related issues of being perceived as an attractive girl and “winning” the approval of others, especially the men in her life, like her father and grandfather. Connected to Olive’s struggle to become a young woman is dealing with what Erikson would call the “industry vs. inferiority” stage (Gladding, p. 12).

Essentially, after staying with Sheryl’s more socio-economically successful sister’s family and participating in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant with her cousins, Olive has set a goal of training for and winning beauty pageants. Olive’s relationship with her grandfather and father underlie her desire to reach this goal, since she has, in many ways, equated “winning” the pageants with “winning” their love and acceptance. Perhaps most importantly, Richard, who initially knew nothing about the beauty pageant and could have cared less, becomes as obsessed with winning the pageant as he is with becoming a “winner” himself by successfully publishing his “nine-steps. ” Indeed, a direct connection between his “Refuse to Lose” philosophy and the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant is made when he asks Olive if she thinks she can win the pageant. When Olive, who is not stereotypical beauty pageant material, says yes, Richard acts as though she has already won the pageant. Figuring out what it means to be a “winner” in the Hoover family is the crisis that drives the growth and change of the main characters.

The developmental and circumstantial crises faced by the other characters in the film, Dwayne, Frank, and Edwin, play important but lesser roles in the film. Dwayne, who is fifteen years old, is passing through what Erikson would call the “identity vs. role confusion” stage of his development by rebelling against his stepfather and biological mother in an effort to differentiate himself from his dysfunctional, blended family (Gladding, p. 13). Edwin, on the other hand, is dealing with the stage of his development that Erikson would call “integrity vs. despair (Gladding, p. 13). Indeed, Edwin, who is a widower in his late 70s, does not seem to be dealing with this stage very well, since he focuses much of his time, when not helping Olive learn how to dance, on sexual pleasure and the recreational use of heroin. Frank, who appears to be in his late 30s or early 40s, seems to be dealing with the same stage of development as Richard and Sheryl, “generativity vs. despair” (Gladding, p. 13). In many ways, Frank’s character is the antithesis of Richard’s, since he was successful in his career in academia. Indeed, it is made clear that Frank was a “winner,” since he was the number one Proust scholar in the United States before his life fell apart.

However, Frank lacks what Richard and his sister, Sheryl, have, but have lost sight of: a more rewarding personal life, containing love, as imperfect and flawed as it may be. Family CharacteristicsIn terms of family dynamics, the communication patterns exhibited by the members of the Hoover family are important to note. In the beginning of the film, the Hoovers are not communicating well with each other. In fact, Richard’s effort to stop Frank from explaining to Olive why he tried to kill himself at the dinner table, provides a great example of how the Hoover’s have rules specifying that they avoid talking about serious and unpleasant topics.

These “family process rules” can have a dramatic impact on the development of children and adolescents (Feinauer, Larson, and Harper, 2010).

For example, Dwayne’s decision not to speak at all until he leaves home shows how a lack of communication has become an accepted norm in the Hoover family. The Hoover’s also frequently display a behavior known as “damping,” or “making hurtful comments even when others are clearly trying to be positive” (Gladding, p. 36). However, as the family bonds during their shared journey to California, they begin exhibiting a behavior known as “repair,” which involves resolving conflicts through discussions in which everyone is heard and listened to (Gladding, p. 36). In a sense, the unexpected crisis of transporting Olive to the beauty pageant forced all of the Hoover’s to sit and talk with each other for long periods of time in the van, making the trip, in a sense, an extended family therapy session. These “van sessions,” as well as various challenges along the way, forced the Hoovers to break through the “homeostasis” that kept them from relating in healthier ways.

There are also several structures present in the Hoover family that are worth commenting on. For example, the relationship between Olive and Edwin has become a bit of an “intergenerational coalition,” since their secret dance routine, the revelation of which brings the film to its emotionally satisfying conclusion, has become a secret kept from the rest of the family (Gladding, p. 38). There are also several “conflictual triangles” at work in the Hoover family (Gladding, pp. 38-39). For example, as the pressure on Sheryl’s relationship with her husband, Richard, increases, the relationship between Sheryl and her brother, Frank, leads them to align themselves together against Richard in subtle ways. For example, Frank’s snide and sarcastic comments to Richard about his “nine-steps” make Sheryl smile quite a bit, since she, herself, harbors those same resentful emotions toward her husband.

Family Systems Theory

The various approaches to family systems theory can also provide insight into how the Hoovers function as a family. For example, if one were to apply psychodynamic theory to understanding and working with the Hoovers, then the unconscious forces at work in the lives of Richard and Sheryl, Dwayne and Olive, and Edwin and Frank, could be addressed. The psychodynamic approach would lead to an examination of many of the “interlocking pathologies” described earlier (Gladding, p. 204). However, this approach would take time and money that the Hoovers do not appear to have. Therefore, other approaches should be considered. For example, the use of structural family therapy, would provide a more pragmatic approach, deemphasizing insight, and emphasizing symptom removal and family reorganization (Gladding, p. 288).

Every member of the Hoover family uses strategies, both healthy and unhealthy, to cope with how they feel toward themselves and each other. To begin with, Richard is in denial about where he is in his life as he approaches middle age; he uses clichés and catchy phrases to hide from his own lack of success in life. He also uses his “nine-step program” to delude himself into thinking that being a “winner” can simply be willed into existence. He does not see the pressure that he is putting on Sheryl, Olive, and the other members of their family. Sheryl, in contrast to Richard, copes with her increasing stress and anxiety by secretly smoking cigarettes when no one is around. Edwin also uses substances and activities, such as heroin and sex, to alter his awareness of his unhappiness at getting older. Dwayne simply stops talking to people that he thinks are crazy, while Olive copes with her struggle to “win” the approval and acceptance of her father by fantasizing about winning beauty pageants. Finally, Frank coped with his difficulties by trying to commit suicide, often a cry for help, which his sister, Sheryl, quickly provided.

To work with the Hoovers, several important issues will need to be addressed in family counseling. Above all, addressing Frank’s suicidal ideation will be a top priority. Beyond this critical issue, however, the choice of a theoretical approach will drive the selection and prioritization of many of the Hoover’s other issues. For example, if a psychodynamic approach is used, then gaining insight into the unconscious processes and “interlocking pathologies” of individual family members would be considered an important issue to be addressed in counseling (Gladding, p. 226). Using this approach, it would become important to gain insight into why Richard is so obsessed with being a “winner. ” Likewise, it would be important to help Olive gain insight into her desire to compete in and win beauty pageants. In contrast, a structural approach would lead to more of a focus more on how the Hoovers are interacting today, rather than on gaining insight on some aspect of their history as individuals.

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Identify how the family illustrates some of the concepts of the model you have chosen to use (homeostasis, boundaries, rules, etc. ) 6. Using some of the interventions from the model, describe how they would be implemented and how you would work with the family to try and help them with the issue(s) you identified7. Conclude by talking about some of the strengths and weaknesses of the model and its help with the family.

Works Cited

  1. Aronson, L. R. (2012). Little Miss Sunshine: Happiness and the Pursuit of the Presidency. In The Obama Effect: Multidisciplinary Renderings of the 2008 Campaign (pp. 83-93). State University of New York Press.
  2. Berardinelli, J. (2006). Little Miss Sunshine: A review by James Berardinelli. Reelviews Movie Reviews.
  3. Blumenfeld, S. (2006). "Little Miss Sunshine": A Family on the Road. NPR.
  4. Capobianco, K. (2006). Little Miss Sunshine. The Boston Globe.
  5. Gerhardt, C. U. (2009). Resilience in the Movies: A Conceptual Analysis. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 28(4), 318-326.
  6. Green, S. P. (2014). Little Miss Sunshine and the ethics of care: The relational self, maternal embodiment, and the film's feminist potential. Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 31(2), 131-146.
  7. Korgen, K. O. (2007). Little Miss Sunshine: Positive Deviance in a Film about the Family. Teaching Sociology, 35(4), 381-390.
  8. Marino, J. (2006). Little Miss Sunshine: Film Review. Austin Chronicle.
  9. Miller, L. J., & Miller, M. J. (2004). Couple Therapy for Midlife Transitions. Handbook of Couples Therapy, 457-476.
  10. Strowbridge, J. (2006). DVD Releases for December 19, 2006-Part I. The Numbers.
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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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“Little Miss Sunshine” Analysis. (2020, May 19). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 22, 2024, from
““Little Miss Sunshine” Analysis.” GradesFixer, 19 May 2020,
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