Little Miss Sunshine

It's the heroin snorting, porn-addled, leather-vested, fanny-packing grandfather of Olive, Little Miss Sunshine, that is the ogre of the movie. He's played by Alan Arkin as an erupting fountain of genial obscenity. Stanley Klawans, in his Nation review of the movie, says that the no one explains the yellow VW bus, but the VW bus explains everything else, and I am following up on that comment. The bus must have been the grandfather's; there is no way that anyone else would have acquired it. The grandfather is a cartoon of the baby boomers, and the movie is about the legacy that we, the baby booming generation, have left our children and grandchildren. The movie, which is sweet and winsome, has, at its heart, a devastating critique of the Boomers, as parents. Our legacy is a VW bus which they cannot easily drive, doesn't have a first gear, has to be push-started, blows its horn uncontrollably, and when the chips are really down, the doors have to be removed for them to get out of. Our children can hardly get where they want to go with the vehicle that we have left them.

The first thing that we know about Grandpa is that he snorts heroin. He doesn't think that his kids or grandkids should snort heroin, but it is OK that he does because "he is old." In a moral universe defined by 'situational ethics', old age creates a situation in which there are no consequences for what would be unwise behavior among younger people. Older people are going to die anyway, so nothing can have a worse effect, so, therefore, everything is allowed. When it comes to sexual behavior, it is the same. His advice to the young men in the family is to have as much sex as possible with as many women as possible. Approaching the end of life, Grandpa is a distillation of the "please yourself" ethic of the baby booming generation. The "triumph of the will."

Do I think that this is the way that my age cohort really is? Not really, but that is not the point. The point is that is what the generations that follow us have concluded to be our operative ethics.

Richard, the direct son of Grandpa, has understood how culturally appropriate this ethic is in this society. He has tried to commercialize the willfulness that he has inherited as a self-help program which tries to teach people to be "winners" and "the put the habits of losers behind them." One of the strands of the plot is that this effort fails, despite his heroic and repeated reinvestment in the idea that losing is only in the mind.

It soons become clear that Grandpa is really just so much dead weight and baggage that must be carried by the generation that follows.

The end of the movie is quite touching. In the end, this family unites and pulls together to protect Olive from complete humiliation which had been created by Grandpa. In the end, loyalty to family is the supreme value.

This is not just a sentimental, feel-good, life-affirming happy ending for a movie. It is a stone-cold, razor-sharp and completely unmerciful statement of generational antogonism. The children of the baby-boomers, the children who have grown up in the most broken homes as any generation in history, say that loyalty to family is the most important value. It is stunning declaration of what they feel that they have been denied, what they never received.

Not since "Four Weddings and A Funeral" has a light comedy carried such an insightful and angry punch to our collective solar plexus


  1. Do I think that this is the way that my age cohort really is? Not really, but that is not the point. The point is that is what the generations that follow us have concluded to be our operative ethics.

    Why is it that everyone seems to think this age cohort is one homogenious group? In Spiral Dynamics they talk about cultural memes -- the blue meme of punishment (that's the Fundies), the Green meme of fairness (that's the hippies) and the Orange meme of the Bottom Line (the MBAs on cocaine) -- and the Green meme people keep getting blamed for the depredations of the Orange meme.
    I've been saying for quite some time that the conservatives think the liberals are to blame for the lack of morals, while the liberals think the conservatives are to blame for the lack of morals , but it's really some other, third, group that is to blame. Now that I've heard about Spiral Dynamics, I think it is those Orange meme people -- the ones who think money and competition justify anything and only the bottom line counts, but who also own all of the media and can tell everyone what to think....

  2. Saw it tonight. Loved it. I especially loved the moment when the heretofore silent son screams, "Divorce! Bankruptcy! Suicide! You're all f-ing LOSERS!"

    I LOVED Grandpa's moves. I loved that Olive was so comfortable with them, truly the innocent among the tarted up, thoroughly ruined contestants. Grandpa's routine was so honest: he knew that the whole pageant was really about porn, so he gave his granddaughter an old school rock n' roll striptease to do. Which blew the lid off the coy kiddie porn that passed for a talent competition among the rest of the little Barbies. I thought it was brilliant. Likewise her costume.

    Wonderful film, and whoever played the "Bereavement Liaison" has earned a place on my permanent list of best cameos ever.


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