As the story goes, in a speech delivered by at-the-time Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger to an audience of school children that featured the quote ‘If there’s one thing I hate in this world, it’s losers. I despise them.’ While both ‘faintly fascistic’ [Halberstam, 2011] and proto-Trump in flavour, this Schwarzenegger take is fairly uncontroversial as far as American cultural attitudes go, be it Bush-era or today. It might as well be in the Declaration of Independence. Screenwriter Michael Arndt’s ears pricked up, however, and he was inspired to write a sort of ‘Ode to Loserdom’ that became the 2006 tragicomedy/road movie Little Miss Sunshine, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.
The members of the Hoover family act as case studies for Loserdom, exhibiting different flavours or modes of failure as the film progresses.
Schwarzenegger’s worldview is directly echoed in the film by Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear). His conception of the world is that there are two kinds of people; Winners and Losers. Indeed, he is attempting to monetize this belief, through packaging it as ‘the 9-step ‘Refuse-To-Lose’ program’. Currently, he delivers the 9-step program to classrooms of five uninterested people. In the face of his felt Loserdom, we ask ourselves if Richard truly believes in the obvious nonsense he is trying to sell, or is he just ‘living the gimmick’ loudly and overtly? Utilising his devotion as a marketing tool like so many other late capitalist self-help grifters before and after him? To be honest, those are not mutually exclusive categories, and one can lead to the other.
Richard’s desperate attempts at success and/or providing for his family are at a crucial juncture however – he is waiting on a book deal for Refuse-To-Lose, which will catapult his career and rescue the family from dire financial straits (they’ve spent savings trying to get Refuse-To-Lose off the ground). His desperation leads to his performatively trying to embed this ideology into his family to convince himself of its (and his own) worth, which has toxic results – for example, he pivots brother-in-law Frank’s story about the breakdown of his life into a teachable moment for daughter Olive, and manipulates Olive into not wanting ice cream;
‘Okay, but Olive, let me ask you this: those women in Miss America? Are they skinny or are they fat?’
‘Well… They’re skinny I guess.’
‘Yeah. Guess they don’t eat a lot of ice cream.’
Richard’s conception of himself as one of the Winners is tested in the middle of the film – he gets a call and is told that his book deal has fallen through. He grieves – despondent and muted at first, then following a ‘finances’ ultimatum chat with Sheryl, enraged. He stays up all night, renting a moped off some youths to bike 20 miles to confront the agent responsible for his book pitch. Stan Grossman (Bryan Cranston) explains ‘It’s not the program, Richard. It’s you, okay? No-one’s heard of you. Nobody cares.’ Richard pauses – has his true loserness hit home? Will he accept his failure? Another pause, then; ‘What’s the next step?… Whoa, hey? One setback here and you’re ready to just quit?… This is what the nine steps are all about. Right here Stan, right here!’ Because Richard’s devotion to and internalisation of the Shwarzeneggerian ideology cannot be unseated by some slick agent in a suit – in the same way that capitalism’s own criticisms, idiosyncrasies and outright lies are recuperated into capitalisms auto-myth-making, so too can losing only exist as part of a journey to winning, and failure only exist as a stepping-stone to success.
However, while watching the pageant that proceeds the climax of the movie and of the family’s testing journey, Richard finally undergoes his crisis/catharsis. While watching the bizarre parade of glammed up children in swimsuits; their uncanny, dead-eyed smiles and hallucinogenic dance numbers; and while seeing their deranged, delusional, vampiric parents marvel at and cheer for the spectacle, Richard changes. He starts off with his mouth hanging slightly open. His confusion becomes boredom or embarrassment. The camera frames him between the shoulders of cheering parents. He looks around as they hoot and holler, and his boredom turns to incredulity. At points it seems like he might walk out, or he might stand up and clap in time with the saccharine dance track. After briefly trying to prevent Olive performing, he is helpless as, watching her performance, Richard’s dreamlike epiphany is tipped into overdrive. His shaking of the head while the crowds boos becomes a supportive bobbing along to SuperFreak, and his ‘No, no, no, no, no, no.’ is also the moment he stands up to clap with Frank. Richard, in this last sequence, experiences what ‘winning’ really looks like to others – and he slowly, strugglingly realises he doesn’t want to take part in it. While it is painful and counter-instinctive for him to rip himself away from the corporate-think, American Dream, ‘Refuse-to-Lose’ mindset, he does finally feel the catharsis of Total Failure onstage with his family of failures.
Dwayne (Paul Dano) is an awkward, scrawny and perpetually miserable 15-year-old with the dramatic black dyed fringe befitting of such a guy. He reads a lot of Friedrich Nietzsche, and in fact has a floor length portrait of the philosopher, apparently hand drawn with black paint on fabric, hanging in his room. Also, his one dream is to join the Air Force as a test pilot, and ‘he’s taking a vow of silence until he reaches that goal.’ (‘I think it shows tremendous discipline,’ states his father as he prepares to cite from his Refuse-To-Lose program while Dwayne rolls his eyes.)
Dwayne embodies a particular kind of (masculine) adolescent failure – he lives by the future but is failed by his present. He has dreams and wants, has an idea for direction in his life, one that is exciting, engages his interests and will make people feel proud of him – but in his present he feels dissatisfied and bored, held back by the mundanity of not only his family and his status as a child; but crucially by his unavoidable, inescapable teenage-boy-ness. Like many teens feeling similar feelings, he wants validation for his angst, and has thus turned to Nietzsche, the reverence (and misunderstanding) of whom can be prominently performed – perfect for a teenage boy in his emotional/hormonal/social state. His vow of silence (mis)learned from Nietzchean philosophy, combined with the cartoon coolness of his dream job, dips him into a twisted caricature of his father’s ‘winners-and-losers’ story.
Later in the film, when it innocuously yet fatefully transpires that Dwayne is colourblind and therefore will never be able to fly planes, he experiences a total meltdown of failure – his heart drops, his face cracks, he pounds on the inside of the van, and once they’ve pulled over he sprints out, wanting to get far away from the family he knows would suffocate him now, to experience grief for the death of his dreams, and he lets out an animalistic, guttural howl into the California desert. The first noise he has uttered in nine months, that vow of silence all ultimately for nothing. Dwayne’s dream is dead, and he has (unknowingly, yet inevitably) killed it.
From when we meet him sat in a wheelchair, wrists bandaged, looking tearfully from a hospital window, Frank (Steve Carrell) embodies a combination of ultimate failures – queer suicidality. After falling for one of his grad students (‘It was a boy?? You fell in love with a boy??’, asks Olive, eyes wide), only for that student to ignore him and run off with a career rival (‘The second-most-highly-regarded Proust scholar in the US’ – ‘Who’s the first?’ – ‘That would be me.’), Frank, in a rage of betrayal and rejection, gets himself fired from his job and made homeless.* Finally, his career rival is rewarded a prestigious grant and this is when Franks decides that these tragic, ostentatious, spiralling failures must be ended by his own hand – ‘And I failed at that as well,’ he notes acerbically at the dinner table.
And the family do not readily let him get over this. Frank is surrounded by awkward people uncomfortable with not only his suicidalness, but the particular queerness of the drama that led to it. After bringing him into the home Sheryl lets him settle in with an ‘uh, just leave the door open. That’s important.’ Edwin regularly makes homophobic digs. Dwayne writes ‘Please don’t kill yourself tonight’ on his pad before they go to sleep. Richard tried to turn his discomfort into both an insult to Frank and a lecture for Olive, ‘He gave up on himself – which is something that winners never do.’ Frank’s acceptance of the ultimate failure (suicide) is incompatible with Richard’s philosophy of winners and losers, just as the perceived (queer) melodrama of his tragic life events and emotional torment feels incompatible with a productive role in this family, and indeed in America at large. His failure and his queerness are inextricably linked.
The Hollywood-ness of the film takes its toll on Frank, for the better. He is visibly lit up when he spars with the coarse and crude Edwin, or when he winds up Richard. We feel like his depression is alleviated when he is relishing in the novel joy of having to help get the van moving, and we are moved by the camaraderie he develops as he gradually becomes part of the family. Over a matter of days, he transforms from a jaded and exhausted queer with his wrists bandaged, to a man (at least temporarily) experiencing a less harmful catharsis, dancing unafraid with his new family (wrists still bandaged).
*When Frank is telling this story at the dinner table Edwin obnoxiously blows his nose at this point. Frank shoots him a look.