How is hope lost? Is it stolen in the middle of the night when no one’s watching? Does it gradually shrink as life becomes one constant disappointment after another? Is it when hearts get broken and never mend? Or when dreams stay that way, merely dreams? Sometimes, it’s all of these things. It’s the relentless metaphorical beatings from the hardships of life that make “hope” seem like just another empty word, one said in passing just to get through the day. But can hope also be restored? All it takes is one moment, one friend, one word— or in the case of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s dramedy Little Miss Sunshine (2004), one trip.
Ironically, the trip is to support Olive Hoover’s (Abigail Breslin) dream to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine Beauty Pageant. While traveling to California from Albuquerque in a beaten-down yellow van, the Hoover family’s pent-up frustrations unravel throughout the way. Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear) is the overly confident patriarch whose hubris is masking his insecurities and hurting his family along the way. Meanwhile, Sheryl Hoover (Toni Colette) is the quintessential suburban mother whose function is to hold the family together.
Sheryl is the one who gets her brother Frank Ginsburg (Steve Carell) from the hospital after he attempts suicide, bears the brunt of her son Dawney Hoover’s (Paul Dano) resentment and anger after her first divorce, and tries to be there for her youngest daughter Olive. As well, Sheryl navigates the complexities of living with her cocaine addict father-in-law, whose personality is like a dried-out loofah: hard and just a little unpleasant.
Underneath the misunderstandings and petty arguments amongst the family, the thread that binds them together is hope. For the Hoovers, the trip across New Mexico and California is about restoring hope in their lives. Over the years, hope has become opaque by the mundane problems of everyday life. Sheryl has spent her time fixing everyone else’s problems. Meanwhile, Richard has fooled himself into the fallacy of binaries like “winner vs. loser,” only to become a victim of his own mantra. Sheryl and Richard’s relationship becomes stagnant and dependent on the distance they have built between one another. A blend of Richard’s lack of self-awareness and Sheryl’s repression of everything around her has led to a vast space between them.
What kind of hope can exist amid so much space? It isn’t until they’re both inside that van, forced to confront the reality of their lives and a failing relationship, that Sheryl and Richard begin to construct newfound hope in one another and their marriage. The lack of hope is the consequence of its neglect. The lies they tell one another — whether they’re about Richard’s failed business venture or Sheryl’s discontent — only add to that tension. Hope is not some type of unlimited currency. It’s the invisible string that ties Sheryl and Richard together and, if neglected, it could break at any point.
Inside Sheryl and Richard’s marriage are the extended parts of them. Sheryl’s brother Frank attempted suicide due to disillusionment — disillusionment of love, his job, and his overall identity as a prominent scholar. Frank’s depression is a symptom of that loss of hope, the loss of belief in a future where he’ll love again or overcome his identity crisis.
After the van breaks down, the Hoovers must push it up to 20 miles per hour for it to start. They each take turns jumping back inside the van afterwards. “No one gets left behind,” Frank says to Dwayne, when he almost doesn’t make it inside but does. Up until this point, Frank has been a passive spectator to the chaos of the family, masking his pain with sarcastic jabs at his brother-in-law and silent judgment. That is until he sees his nephew Dwayne heading down the path of consuming cynicism bound to break his spirit — something Frank is all too familiar with.
Frank’s growing relationship with Dwayne reawakens a part of himself he lost sight of, and that is the instinct to teach and mentor. Frank sees Dwayne left in the wake of his resentment and chooses not to leave him behind. Through Dwayne, Frank finds hope again. In saving Dwayne, Frank also saves himself.
The symbiotic nature of these relationships becomes the beating heart of the family. Each serves a higher purpose that makes the whole — the family — stronger by the end of the film. In one of the film’s most emotionally compelling scenes, seven-year-old Olive asks her grandfather Edwin (Alan Arkin) if she’s beautiful or just a loser. It is a question loaded with insecurities, and he puts them to rest.
Having endured a trip filled with the pitfalls of image and self-doubt, Olive turns to her grandfather for direction and comfort. He is quick to provide this, understanding that it’s not about turning Olive into a cynical “winner,” like her father would have done. What matters more than any beauty pageant is belief in oneself. Her grandfather distinguishes the hope that resides in all of them. He knows that life is one beauty pageant after another, and to get caught up in it is to lose all hope. With tears in her eyes, overwhelmed with the fear of losing that hope even for a second, Olive believes what her grandfather already knows to be true.
“D’you know what a loser is? A real loser is someone who’s so afraid of not winning, they don’t even try. Now you’re trying, right?”
Hope, in Little Miss Sunshine, is rediscovered in the Hoovers’ renewing of their relationships. In giving themselves to one another as a complete family, knowing that any of them, whether it’s Sheryl, Richard or even Dwayne, will be there to catch them. In its bright yellow metal encasing worn and beaten by the time the family arrives in California, the van seems to mirror the people inside. Maybe they break down along the way, but they make it through with a regained sense of hope that was not there at the beginning of the trip. All it takes is a little bit of help to push.
It isn’t the grandfather dying that is the catalyst of this change — it’s the lessons he leaves behind through Olive. In true unorthodox Hoover family fashion, they all join Olive on stage during the pageant’s talent portion and dance to Rick James’s “Super Freak” in solidarity at the end of the film. As a disturbed audience watches Olive and her family dance to one of the raunchiest songs ever, viewers bear witness to their recaptured sense of hope. For them, winning has nothing to do with a crown or the praise of strangers. To the Hoovers, winning is knowing that the people who matter will be there to join you in your most humiliating moment. Sometimes, they will even jump on stage and dance to “Super Freak” with you.
It takes the entire Hoover family pushing a bright yellow van, a few stops along the way, and a dead body in the back of the trunk for them to gain back what they lost. Maybe hope is always there, dormant, and all it takes is for someone to unearth it. To polish it from the debris of life and set it once more on top of the family mantle. For the Hoovers, it takes more than a shovel to find it, but in the end, they do. In the end, no one gets left behind, just as Frank said all along.