Little Miss Sunshine is a comedy-drama following a dysfunctional family on their cross-country quest to get a young girl to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. Little Miss Sunshine is warm, witty, and uplifting, with one of the strongest cast of characters I’ve ever seen. Michael Arndt’s writing style is unique, concise and a general joy to read. It’s one of the greatest screenplays I’ve ever read, honestly.
The premise is simple: a dysfunctional family goes on a road trip, attempting to get to the Little Miss Sunshine championships in Boca Raton (Redondo Beach, in the movie). That’s the general premise of the movie. The road trip is always a great idea for an ‘indie’ movie, but it helps even more that the subplots are so strong within this screenplay. We have Richard, the patriarch, grappling with his long-held ‘winners are winners’ mentality. Sheryl, the matriarch, struggling to hold the family together. Dwayne, the son, taking a vow of silence until he becomes a pilot. Frank, the brother, temporarily living with the family after a suicide attempt. Edwin, the grandpa, a heroin addict living with the family. And Olive, our aspiring beauty queen, with her dreams of stardom.
All of these function as both character motivations and individual subplots, effortlessly complementing one another to tell a glorious story about a family of ‘losers’ coming to terms with their failings in life and ultimately embracing them. My only complaint about the plotting in this screenplay is simply that it could be argued that some of the subplots could be considered “underdeveloped”. For example, Sheryl doesn’t really get a lot to do outside of tending to her family, and Grandpa’s subplot ends rather abruptly. But I don’t even consider that to be a major problem, as the focus isn’t on those subplots. It’s on the family dynamic. More on that in structure.
Little Miss Sunshine is about as perfect as you can get if you’re looking for a three-act structure. We have our five clear drivers: our inciting event (Olive gets the call to say she’s qualified); first act turn (the family heads out on the road); midpoint (Grandpa dies); second act turn (they reach the pageant) and closing event (the family dance together onstage).
They’re clear, and every single one of them has a lot of significance for our characters.
There’s also a stroke of genius by Michael Arndt, which is to ensure that most of the subplots are wrapped up before the family reach the pageant. This allows the reader to spend the third act entirely focused on the pageant, unencumbered by what is going to happen to Character A or Character B. But here’s where the genius comes in — it also allows the subplots to drive the material of that long, intimidating thing called ‘the second act’.
The subplots drive the second act, allowing us to get to know the family and their individual failings before we get to that triumphant climax. I mentioned the subplots in the last section, and that is really where the praise has to come in here. We may not get a whole lot of stuff about Frank’s ex-lover or Richard’s botched deal with Grossman, but a scene or two is really all we need. We have so many well-established characters on this journey that we don’t need to dwell on their individual foibles or meet any other characters. We’re not interested in Richard’s business with Stan Grossman. We want to see him amongst the family. And by finishing the subplots before Act 3, Arndt smartly allows the reader to focus on the family at the pageant, not the side adventures.
This, to me, is where the script completely excels and marks itself as perfect. The characters are so clearly defined, each with an individual problem or motivation that feels true to the story. Richard cannot stand the idea of losing. Dwayne refuses to speak because he wants to prove his dedication to his dream. Grandpa is quietly addicted to heroin. Frank is a gay, suicidal man struggling to come to terms with his life. Sheryl is overworked to her limits and desperate to keep the family together. The family is practically held together by the tiny ray of sunshine that is Olive, with her own motivation: to get to the pageant and to be a beauty queen.
In his book, The Anatomy of Story, John Truby recommends thinking of characters as part of a ‘web’. In doing so, a writer defines the character and their relationships by comparing and contrasting characters against one another. As Truby says: “a character is often defined by who he is not.” For Little Miss Sunshine, the web is the family. And right at the center is young Olive. While she may not be the most complex or ‘interesting’ character in the story, Olive is by far the most important. It’s her dreams that drive the story, her unstoppable positivity in the face of embarrassment that inspires her family to get on that stage alongside her to dance like fools. Olive is not her family. She’s not cynical or depressed. She’s hopeful.
That one decision by Ardnt is what lifts the script above 90% of other indie comedy-dramas.
There’s a trend in that genre to go for dark quirkiness where every character has a dark side and an off-beat sense of humor. Arndt sidesteps that, embracing Olive’s bright innocence. It’s her character that makes the others work. Without her, none of those character arcs could function. She is the one to contrast and influence. Her cheery disposition offers another way to live. And, according to this screenplay, the right way to live.
Those individual motivations allow every single character to have their own unique, clearly defined ‘voice’. If you remove the character names, I think it would be easy to work out who was speaking. Not an easy feat, but a miraculous achievement. Here’s a breakdown of what Arndt gives to each character:
Sheryl is calming, gentle and maternal (“I’m not upset, honey. I just want you to understand: It’s okay to be skinny, and it’s okay to be fat, if that’s how you want to be. Whatever you want — it’s okay.” — p. 32).
Richard is to-the-point, almost hostile and sharp (“Olive, can I tell you something about ice-cream? […] Ice cream is made from cream, which comes from cow’s milk. And cream has a lot of fat in it…” — p. 31).
Olive is innocent and naive (“Oh, oh! I want waffles. And… what does “A la mod-ee” mean?” — p. 30).
Grandpa is foul-mouthed and without filter (“Yeah. Get me some porn. Something really nasty. None of that air-brushed shit, alright?” — p.41).
Frank is very uncomfortable, often speaking in short sentences (“You know, I wish I could tell you I felt bad. But I didn’t. I was. Outside the world, y’know? It was very peaceful…” — p. 93).
Dwayne, when he speaks, is passionate and thoughtful (“Sometimes I wish I could just go to sleep until I was eighteen. Just skip all this crap — high school and everything. Just skip it…” — p. 93).
I don’t have a lot to say about the dialogue because I honestly think this is the greatest takeaway from the screenplay. I cannot emphasize enough how difficult it is to create a cast of characters with voices so specific and unique, so true to themselves. It’s the mark of a truly great writer.
Little Miss Sunshine is proudly a movie about embracing the loser within, an uplifting and positive theme that everyone can relate to in some way. And no more is this explored than in the character of Richard, a motivational speaker that cannot abide the idea of losing. Richard’s arc is the one that most encapsulates the theme of the entire movie. Initially, he’s so horrified by the idea of being a loser that he’s willing to buy a moped from some kids to drive cross-country in the black of night just to try and win back some clarity on a failed deal. Compare that to Richard at the pageant: seeing Olive perform her ‘dance’ onstage, his horror turns to solidarity. He joins the family in supporting her. And, when she’s threatened with security, Richard is the first one to join her onstage and the first to encourage her to keep dancing.
It’s a change that resonates because we’ve seen his resistance. Richard has long refused to accept that he can lose. But ultimately, he’s convinced. Seeing his daughter enjoying herself despite the threat of embarrassment is enough. The uptight ‘winner’ finally accepts that it doesn’t matter if you’re a loser, as long as you’re having fun. Arndt’s thematic fight within Richard works so perfectly because it dovetails with the overall theme of the movie.
Comedy-dramas are so difficult to get right. It’s a fine line between goofy and tragic, and moving too far to one can make the entire story fall apart. Arndt treads that line very carefully, ensuring that while the comedy comes from the characters, it never overshadows the dramatic underpinnings of a narrative featuring suicide attempts, shattered dreams and family dysfunction. And a stolen corpse.
Arndt manages to mix up the pages frequently — some are very text heavy, while others are very ‘white’. I personally like this, since it keeps the script feeling varied and ‘fresh’. But what I really love? Arndt knows to keep his action blocks to three lines or less. Even an action-heavy page reads beautifully.
This is one of those projects that is just destined to be a success, no matter what. It’s a feel-good dramatic comedy that requires a small budget. It’s easy to sell, is warm enough to draw people in and thoughtful enough to keep people in their seats. There’s enough imagery to remember, great set pieces. It’s hard to imagine this failing, even if it were released today.
For an small independent movie, Little Miss Sunshine is just one of those perfect titles that rarely comes along. It’s quirky, yet it defines the entire story. It refers to the pageant, but also to Olive — the radiant young girl that believes she can win this thing. It works on a number of levels, and is unique enough to remember.
Little Miss Sunshine is one of the greatest screenplays I’ve read. It’s at once light and thought-provoking, offering up an uplifting and moving theme of embracing failure. The subplots work in perfect harmony, the characters are magnificently defined. The dialogue is so perfectly attuned to every character, making the family seem real and bonded. It just succeeds incredibly as a heartwarming and triumphant story about failure.
It’s a perfect screenplay.
Read it here