Open Letter to the Movie "Little Miss Sunshine"

Dear the movie “Little Miss Sunshine“:

I fell in love with you the first hour and forty-two minutes I saw you. I’ll never forget the moment we met. Well, maybe I will, so I should record it for posterity. It was on the second leg of a three-leg trip home from a business trip to San Francisco. I wasn’t in the mood to read, and the seat next to me was unoccupied. I mention this latter fact only because we might not have met under other circumstances. You see, the headphone jack in my seat was missing, and I had to bogart the jack in the seat next to me. But enough about how we met. Let’s talk about why I’m so drawn to you.

First, there’s all the literary goodness that I know must be lurking just below your surface that I don’t quite get but know I should. Take for example all the Nietzche stuff and all the mentions of Steve Carell’s character as a Proust scholar. I can name a few works by both of these guys, and I know they’re both major literary figures, but that’s about all I can say about them. Nevertheless, I suspect there’s some complex relationship between their general philosophies that the movie itself probably exposes to those in the know, and the fact that I can even name a couple of works by each gentleman makes me feel as if I’m at the margins of some circle of privileged knowledge. Which makes me feel almost as good as not knowing anything else about these guys makes me feel bad. One feels cooler when he can nod and say “yes, I’ve heard of that” than when he can’t.

“Little Miss Sunshine,” you also showed me a different side of Steve Carell. I loved his deadpan work on “The Daily Show,” and I love his work on “The Office,” but a movie’s worth of those characters would be, well, an Adam Sandler or a Will Ferrell movie, which would have driven me screaming from the airplane. But the more understated character Carell plays in you is more palatable (with, however, darker echoes of his character in “The Office” that keep me in a comfort zone without overloading me with absurdity). Carell also happens to look a little bit like Marcel Proust.

Your grandfather character is charmingly irreverent. Your father character isn’t terribly believable, but caricature of a well-meaning but misguided (by which I mean guided more toward appeasing his own insecurities than his children’s well-being) father is forgivable. Your mother character is fine, generally unmemorable. Your teen character is generally believable (much more extreme but I think sort of kin to me as a teenager), and the little girl character is at once absurd and vaguely believable. My own daughter would probably, left to her own devices (as perhaps she should often be), trounce around the desert in an all red outfit with red cowboy boots. (She went to bed the other night wearing pink cowboy boots, at any rate.)

I love your bleating horn. Had my fellow passengers been awake at 3:00 a.m. in whatever timezone I was in when I watched you, they would have heard me stifling cackles. You got this absolutely right.

You made me think of Faulkner, “Little Miss Sunshine.” In particular, you made me think of “As I Lay Dying” and the quest that ensues therein: the self-interested father who behaves as if he’s interested in the proper care of others; the darkly comedic trek with (spoiler) a dead family member’s body. There may be other correspondences. I hope you’ll forgive me for not seeing them. I can blame only my poor inadequate memory and the decade it’s been since I read “As I Lay Dying.” My sense of failure at having such a poor memory is mitigated somewhat, I must confess, by my renewed sense of insider status at being able to bring up another literary name alongside Nietzche and Proust. That you make me want to learn more about these icons and find ways to tie them all together is a big part of why I like you so much.

Finally, dear movie, you conclude positively. You bring a misfit family together while sending up the whole bizarre Jon-Benet-type pageant scene. I like in you what I like about the story arc of “Napoleon Dynamite.” For all your darkness and weirdness, you’re ultimately validating and triumphant while appealing to the crass old codger in me. I can’t think of a better use of an hour and forty-two minutes of my time on a sleeping plane, and I thank you for your company. I’m sure we’ll meet again.

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