Comprehension/Analysis/Evaluation "Little Miss Sunshine" by M. Arndt
- Describe the four characters’ situations in the opening scenes of Little Miss Sunshine. (Comprehension) (16 Punkte)
- Analyse how Richard’s situation and ways of thinking are presented. Focus on the relationship between the stage directions and the spoken text passages as well as the relevance of the other scenes. (Analysis) (24 Punkte)
- Choose one of the following tasks:
3.1 Comment on the philosophy Richard teaches his students. Refer to the situations presented in the film script and work done in class on the American Dream. (Evaluation: comment) (20 Punkte)
3.2 You decide to tell scriptwriter Michael Arndt what you think about the opening scenes of Little Miss Sunshine as a way of introducing a German audience to the concept of the American Dream. Focus on your reactions to these scenes and your expectations of a feature film on the topic. Write a personal letter. (Evaluation: re-creation of text) (20 Punkte)
In a basement, 7-year-old Olive Hoover is silently watching the Miss America beauty pageant on television. Fully captivated by the show, she freezes the frame to practice Miss America’s signature wave, and almost obsessively rewinds the scene of the announcement of the winner. Olive’s serious, focused demeanor and absent-minded imitation of the pageant winner contrasts and almost ridicules the emotional Miss America, who is overwhelmed by her success and triumph.
Olive’s father, Richard, teaches a class at a typical community college about his nine-step “Refuse to Lose” program. Since it is the last one of his 9-week lesson cycles, he tries to wrap up by summarizing and implementing the key facts of his hypothesis with his students. He wants to give them the techniques to achieve their dreams in life. The students, however, are apparently not impressed by Robert’s winner/ loser opposition and leave the room without much of a reaction.
Meanwhile, Olive’s middle-aged mother, Sheryl, is at a hospital. She is clearly on edge, worrying about her cross necklace while looking for a specific room number. When she has finally found the right one, she almost runs into the doctor, who at that exact moment leaves the room. Moreover, the audience learns from their quick exchange that Sheryl’s brother was injured, but is fine now, according to the physician. Sheryl is noticeably relieved.
Uncle Frank, said brother, is introduced in a rather passive way. Like Olive, he does not talk in the scene, and the audience quickly realizes that he must have tried to commit suicide. In the hospital room, he is sitting in a wheelchair and his wrists are bandaged. The man is staring into thin air and listening to the muffled conversation between the doctor and his sister in the hallway. The doctor warns Sheryl to keep him away from objects and medication that Frank could use to harm himself. Although Frank’s situation is unstable and the doctor wants to keep him under supervision, the family can’t afford it, since their insurance would not cover the costs.
Richard is introduced via a scene from his work place. He is a 45-year old man who teaches at a community college, where he is just finishing up a lecture about his “Refuse to Lose” program. The audience sees him standing in a typical classroom environment of cinderblock walls and industrial carpeting, and his Powerpoint is being projected behind him. His appearance is rather classic, since he’s wearing khaki shorts and a golf shirt, yet the way he moves around also hints at a past in sports (l. 14f.). Richard is very enthusiastic about the topic he is teaching, but also seems to be unable to hide his slight lack of confidence and his exasperation with the situation (l. 16f.). Of course, the audience does not know the reason behind this yet.
The stage directions clarify that music (l.17) is playing in the background, accentuating his teacher’s monolog wrapping up the 9-week lecture cycle. Richard breaks the topic down to the most important key points, and emphasizes that there is one thing that his students are supposed to remember from what they have learned. The importance of this thought is stressed by the underlined words within the script. Furthermore, to summarize his concept, Richard juxtaposes “Winners” and “Losers” (l. 19). Whereas the former’s positive attitude towards life gets them anything they desire, the latter generally has very bad prospects. This is manifested in the way they handle situations — whether they hesitate, complain, make excuses or surrender easily. Here, the parallel phrase structure of the comparison highlights the contrast of the two lifestyles even more.
Richard wants his students to realize that there is a “Winner” at the core of every person, and his program is the key to finding this feature of their character. This would enable them to successfully change their attitude, and ultimately make their dreams come true. He finishes making his point with a big smile, showing confidence in his theory and anticipating a reaction from his students. After Richard’s dramatic finale, however, the camera turns to the classroom (reverse angle) and the audience finds out that the auditorium is sparsely filled with students who, on top of that, are not very intrigued by their teacher’s performance, and clap unenthusiastically. Therefore, the scene concludes rather anti-climactically, with a bit of an ironic twist.
This classroom scene stands in stark contrast to the content of the lecture. The audience might suspect that, although Richard’s proposition shows how easy it is to be a “Winner”, he might not be one himself — hence, his theory is proven invalid. The students’ indifferent reaction suggests that he actually might be a loser in the dichotomous world view he has created.
This way of thinking has obviously influenced his daughter Olive immensely. Even at her young age, she shows a massive preoccupation with winning. Her almost hypnotic captivation with the beauty pageant, and especially with the moment of the announcement of the victor, clearly shows this predilection. This becomes even more apparent when she rewinds the tape repeatedly to re-watch the final scene, absent-mindedly practicing the gestures of the winning candidate. The girl’s appearance, however, contrasts the show’s contenders on the screen: She has frizzy hair, black-rimmed glasses, and has a slightly plump figure (l. 3f.), and is therefore a complete opposite of the fully-grown women who were elected on grounds of their outstanding physical beauty. The audience has to wonder if Robert’s “Refuse To Lose” program will extend to his daughter, since it proclaims that dreams come true if one only puts in enough hard work, does not hesitate, and refuses to complain or quit.
Robert’s brother-in-law, Frank, is another person in his immediate environment who is not on the winning side. To put it bluntly, he has given up on life in its entirety, and has tried to end it by cutting his wrists. In the hospital, he sits apathetically in his wheelchair and does not actively partake in the scene.
This leads to the conclusion that, in the opening scenes of the script, Robert’s way of thinking does not keep what it promises, and the supposedly reasonably easy achievement of one’s dreams and desires is actually more difficult than he tells his students. One might even go so far as to say that in the exposition, Olive, her father and her uncle all start out as losers, according to Robert’s view.
The American Dream is the national ethos of the United States, although its notions have slightly changed over time. Nowadays, it mainly represents the ideal that every US citizen has the same opportunity to achieve prosperity through the application of hard work, determination and initiative. Many people agree that it has its roots in the Declaration of Independence, which states the egalitarian notion that “all men are created equal”, with the right to freedom and pursuit of personal happiness.
Robert’s philosophy states that there are two types of people in the world: There are “Winners and Losers” (l. 19). His winners personify the myth of the self-made man who achieves prosperity through hard work and determination. In order to differentiate the two kinds, he stresses that “Winners see their dreams come true” (l. 22). In other words, these people are achieving what the American Dream promises. They are aware of their inherent right to have freedom of individual choice, because “Winners see what they want, they go out and they get it” (l. 22f.). Also, they show determination and “don’t hesitate” (l. 23) and display a diligent work ethic: “They don’t complain. They don’t make excuses” (l. 23). Most importantly, however, “they don’t give up” (l. 24), tenaciously trying to make their dreams come true.
I cannot deny that Robert’s philosophy might enable his students to unlock unknown potentials by focusing on a more positive attitude, but for every single one of them to make their dreams come true is rather unrealistic. Everybody is entitled to have a dream, but succeeding in gaining prosperity and success is not possible for every member of a society. That dream is only for a limited number of people; everyone can have it, but making it come true is a different story. In my opinion, Robert neglects to notice that in order for there to be winners, there also have to be losers. And by celebrating the winners, the rest can focus on what they are striving for, and work towards a goal they might never reach.
Hence, for some, it will merely remain a dream.
Dear Mr. Arndt,
We recently read the opening scenes of your script for Little Miss Sunshine in class while we were covering the American Dream, and I really enjoyed working with it. Today, I’m writing to you this letter to tell you my thoughts on a couple of ideas.
I think your script can be used very well to introduce the concept of the American Dream to a German audience, especially since it is so overtly worked into Richard’s “Refuse to Lose” program. It is reasonably easy to work out the parallels and find points to criticise, since his musings could be considered to stand in stark contrast to the initial presentation of the characters. I immensely enjoyed the element of surprise in the classroom scene when Robert finishes his speech, and in a dramatic dim half-light and hushed silence, the camera turns around only to show that nobody is interested in his apparently life-changing theory.
In this regard, I also really liked your introduction of Olive, since her obsession with beauty pageants seems to tie into real life and society’s problem with the female body image. Although she is only 7 years old, she is already aware of the cultural importance of physical beauty, and has turned it into her personal passion. The way she sits in front of the TV, absent-mindedly mimicking Miss America, is almost scary. But it also raises the question of whether her dream to be on a stage like that isn't far out of her reach. One might also consider the pressure a dream like that can put on a little girl.
I’m really looking forward to seeing the movie version of the script and what you did with the development of the characters. Crucial, of course, will be if the characters achieve their dreams and reach personal happiness. But it will be especially interesting to see what constitutes happiness in this scenario. Will they find it as a family or as individuals? Will Uncle Frank get back on his feet? Does economic success play a role? The insurance dilemma at the hospital already hints that this might be a factor.
Thanks for taking the time to read my letter.
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