Warning: If you haven’t seen the movie yet and want to, you might not want to read this. I give away the ending—the best part of the whole movie.
Little Miss Sunshine made me laugh. Hard. Nietzsche and Rick James, what more can you ask for? OK, so it wasn’t a perfect film. It could have been better, with more character development to make the hilarity all that much more painful. But for mid-summer fare, would you have rather seen Nacho Libre?
Jack Black can be really funny, but this was just stupid
Although I found the flick to be pretty damn funny in its own right, I had some extra-special context with my popcorn. Entirely against my will, I once endured a little girl beauty pageant in Texas.
Two and a half years ago, I was at a hotel within limits of the airport in Dallas, Texas, for an academic conference. These conferences are usually staid, tweedy affairs, and I attend them because I work for an academic publisher. I mind the book table and tend to our authors (I’m the author relations person), while the acquisitions editor goes to papers and such to try to score the next big book that five people in the world will want to read. The most exciting thing that happens at these things is the little wine-and-cheeser held at some point during the show. Well, the fates had something different in store for us this time.
Groggy from lack of sleep and somewhat ill from a disgusting Denny’s breakfast (I said that we were still within the limits of the Dallas airport---I didn't have much choice), I opened up boxes of books to set them up on the folding tables in the half-ballroom that served as the book exhibit. Representatives from other publishers were doing the same, grumbling about when the coffee was supposed to arrive.
I don’t remember who looked out the door to the ballroom first, but pretty soon, we were all rubbing our eyes and staring out as about a hundred little girls with poofy hair (talk about Texas-sized), makeup worthy of a televangelist’s wife, and costumes bedazlled enough to make Liberace roll over with envy in his grave came charging down the hallway toward our ballroom. The stage parents were not far behind them. Excited chatter and glitter came closer and closer to us. It was worse than Jaws.
What the… Was I still asleep?
Nope. I wasn’t. Turns out that the hotel had rented the other half of the ballroom to a young (toddler up through about thirteen or so) girl’s beauty pageant. For the next nine hours we endured little girls running up and down the hall screaming, their stage mothers trailing behind them, whining about their costumes and makeup. Mothers glared at me as I choked on hairspray fumes in the bathroom because I was taking up mirror time for their little darling beauty queens. I saw a mother putting false eyelashes on a little girl who could barely walk. The fathers, some of them shell-shocked, but some of them creepy, sat on the couches outside the room. The whole thing just gave our poor little publishers’ enclave the chills.
Unfortunately the spectacle was nothing compared with the music. For the “talent” part of the competition, the girls performed some kind of dance routine to brief snippets (about thirty seconds a piece) of the following songs: “Isn’t She Lovely,” by Stevie Wonder; the “Theme from 2001” (I don’t know who performed this, as it wasn’t the one from the movie, and I’m sure it wasn’t “Thus Spake Zarathustra”); and “Celebrate Good Times,” by Kool ‘n the Gang. The selections were incomprehensible, as each song predated the contestants by decades.
But never mind whether the girls could relate to the music or not. Let’s talk about the volume. Ear bleed. My book table was about three feet from the flimsy hotel ballroom divider, and my chair leaned up against it. The divider was shaking, the volume was so loud. I couldn’t really talk to the few customers who came into the book exhibit, lured enough by the promise of book bargains to endure the noise. It was hard to hear anything other than the music. Thirty second of each song, at ear bleed, over and over again for hours and hours and hours. There weren’t enough painkillers in the world to take away the pain.
I can’t remember exactly when I started to crack, making up alternate lyrics and doing interpretative dance when customers weren’t around, but it couldn’t have been too terribly long into the day. Academic shows tend to make me a little stir crazy anyway, but this was too much.
I started giggling and asking other exhibitors to name the nameless-to-us pageant. We tried to suggest better song titles. JonBenet Ramsey comments were a plenty (how weird is it that that guy who claimed to have killed her comes out from hiding in Thailand not two seconds after Little Miss Sunshine was released?).
Pretty soon everyone was sharing in the gallows humor, and the infuriating riot of it all carried us away. We couldn’t cry. We couldn’t really go in there and castigate the parents for subjecting their daughters to a lifetime of eating disorders, skewed self-perceptions, and bad relationships. At one point in the day, I did go over and ask the people to turn it down, but to no avail (“We paid for this room,” drawled the man at the registration table). So we laughed instead. Bonds are forged in adverse situations, and these survivors are still my friends. Every time I see my fellow "survivors" at shows, we regale each other with tales from the academic beauty pageant show.
So, two and a half years after experiencing a little girl beauty pageant, I was sitting in the Kendall Square Cinema, watching Little Miss Sunshine. The whole family had gone to hell three-quarters of the way through the movie, but now that the grandpa had died, the book deal had fallen through, the Nietzsche idolizer realized that he would never be an uber mensch, and the second-best Proust scholar had been caught buying porn at a gas station by his ex-boyfriend, things just might wind up okay. There was just one little problem. Olive, the odd-girl out at the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, was about to make a complete fool of herself in the talent competition. The other contestants, perfectly coifed like little china dolls, could sing, dance, and flip to the beat, and Olive just wasn't up to snuff. Some family members tried to stop her, but Olive refused. Not to be deterred, and dressed in a suit, tie, and bowler, she walked out onto the stage.
“She’s a very kinky girl,” Rick James starts to moan, as Olive began the incredibly inappropriate yet so fitting strip number choreographed by her junkie grandpa. “The kind ya don’t bring home to motha…”
“Oh. Holy. Shit.” I whispered to (insert favorite boyfriend name here). That’s it! That’s the perfect song for this kind of sick and twisted affair! Olive started doing little-girl gyrations, and I howled until I started rocking back and forth, gasping for breath, in absolute hysterics. Olive’s family, at first as stunned as the rest of the crowd, rallied to the occasion and soon followed her on stage, clapping and superfreakin’ out to the music, and I came back to breathing capacity, thrilled that someone finally played the perfect number for a little girl’s beauty pageant.
I sent the following e-mail to my publishing friends:
Dear Survivors of the Little Miss Future $%^&*@ of America Pageant,
Do not walk. Run to your nearest theater and see Little Miss Sunshine. Funny in its own right, you will guffaw all the harder at the final scene for having endured the Little Miss Future $%^&*@ of America pageant at the ____ meeting in 2004.
I nearly peed, in any event.
Context is the key, and sometimes it can be delightful. We all bring things with us to stories. I brought my beauty pageant to Little Miss Sunshine.