Great Scene: “Little Miss Sunshine”

In the movie Little Miss Sunshine (2006), which was released 10 years ago yesterday, there is this wonderful scene: The ending dance sequence where 7 year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) performs on stage of the “Little Miss Sunshine” pageant. In the audience watching Olive do her dance routine is her father Richard (Greg Kinnear), a failed self-help motivational speaker, his wife Sheryl (Toni Collette), a woman whose idea of a home-cooked meal is a bucket of take-out friend chicken, their son Dwayne (Paul Dano), who took a vow of silence until he becomes an Air Force pilot, and Sheryl’s brother Frank (Steve Carell), who is living with the Hoover family after a botched suicide attempt. Olive’s dance routine was choreographed by her grandfather Edwin Hoover (Alan Arkin), who after having been kicked out of a retirement home because of unacceptable behavior, dies of a heroin overdose en route to the pageant.

We are talking about one seriously dysfunctional family.

And now perhaps the biggest disaster of all: After a series of cuter-than-cute dance routines by other young contestants, each one more chaste and endearing than the previous one, Olive takes the stage to live out her biggest fantasy — performing at the “Little Miss Sunshine” pageant:

Then Olive finds what she's looking for:  Kirby, in the sound booth.  He nods at her. She nods at him.  Then Olive turns around, her back to the audience.  Kirby turns a VOLUME knob up to "6". He hits "play".  [The music clearly depends on the rights. For specificity,  we'll use "Peach" by Prince.]  A BLAST of hard rock 12 bar blues comes out of the speakers.  Everyone is surprised.  The music is hard-driving and nasty. It is completely different  from the other pageant music we've heard so far.  For the first four measures, with Prince saying, "Here she  comes," and "She got them gold hot-pants on again," Olive  barely moves, rocking her shoulders and hips to the beat.  Dwayne, Frank, Sheryl, and Richard all glance at each other.  This is not what they expected.  No one knows what to make of Olive rocking, her back turned.  However, when the first verse begins, Olive turns and  strides up on the stage -- hands    on hips, shoulders swinging  -- with an absolute and spectacular physical self-confidence.  She rocks out, busting crazy moves this stage has never seen:  shakes, shimmies, twirls, dips, undulations -- a melange of  MTV rump shakin', Solid Gold Dancers re-runs, and  out-of-left-field inventions of her own. Other moves are  clearly drawn from Grandpa's sixty-year career of strip-bar  patronage.  She dances with a total command -- an exuberant, even witty  mastery of her body, the music, the moves, everything.  Most of all, she's doing it for herself -- for her own sense  of fun -- and the judges are instantly irrelevant. 

The audience is stunned. No one moves. Mouths hang open. Sheryl, Frank, and Dwayne gape. Richard is baffled. RICHARD What's she doing? What the hell is she doing? When the first verse ends, Olive punctuates the 12-bar vamp with a series of violent pelvic thrusts. Everyone is totally shocked. No one knows how to react. SHERYL Oh, my God...! Abruptly, Frank starts laughing in disbelief. He stands and begins cheering Olive, pumping his fist and grooving to the music. Richard stares at Frank. Cautiously encouraged, he stands and cheers along with Frank -- tentative at first, then more and more unselfconsciously. Sheryl and Dwayne join in, relieved and amazed. Grandpa was right -- she's blowing them out of the water. As the second verse ends and the guitar solo begins, Olive punctuates the vamp with another series of thrusts. This is too much for the contest Official from the registration desk, who sits near the stage at the table of contest JUDGES, including Miss Florida. She looks around and spots Sheryl, Richard, Frank, et al, standing and cheering. The Official gets up, walks up the aisle and yells at Sheryl. OFFICIAL What is your daughter doing? Sheryl -- taken aback -- shrugs. Richard leans in. RICHARD She's kicking ass, is what she's doing! The others smile and nod. The Official is incensed. She turns and walks back to the sound booth. She yells at Kirby. OFFICIAL Turn it off! KIRBY What? OFFICIAL Turn the music off!!! KIRBY (fake deaf) What...?! He smiles and cranks the music up to "8". Mothers and children in the audience clap their hands over their ears. The audience polarizes -- some (the Grizzled Biker; Miss Florida) stand and cheer while others sit dumbfound or frown disapprovingly, shaking their heads. Still others flee for the exit, heads down, hands over their ears. The Official, furious, leaves Kirby and stalks down the aisle to the stage. Sheryl watches with growing worry. SHERYL What's she doing? Look...! She shakes Richard, points. The Official goes to the MC -- at the side of the st age -- waves to him. He bends down, listens. He nods. The MC walks onstage and tries to stop Olive from dancing, grabbing her arms. Olive doesn't know what he's doing, but she won't let him break her routine. She wiggles away and keeps dancing. Richard -- outraged -- races to the front of the auditorium, leaps on the stage, jumps on the MC's back and rides him -- piggy-back -- into the wings. They crash to the ground. Olive stops dancing, turns and looks at Richard. Richard, grappling with the MC, waves her on. RICHARD Keep dancing, Honey! Just dance! Olive turns and stares at the audience. Dwayne, Frank and Sheryl are gesturing -- "Keep going!" Olive -- hearing the music, seeing Sheryl, Frank, and Dwayne cheering her -- starts to dance again, fluid and relaxed. Richard disentangles himself from the pissed-off MC as STAGEHANDS step in and pull them apart. Richard shrugs off their restraining hands, then turns to watch Olive dance. The Contest Official step s forward and angrily confronts him. OFFICIAL Get your daughter off stage now! Richard -- taken aback -- hesitates. She presses him. OFFICIAL If you don't stop her, she'll be disqualified! Richard stares at her. Then he nods. RICHARD Okay. He turns and walks out on stage. Olive, seeing him, is confused. He steps up behind her. Then Richard starts dancing. They dance together: Olive in front, Richard backing her up. Richard looks at the Official with a defiant, fuck-you smile. Sheryl, Frank and Dwayne, watching, can't believe it. DWAYNE Holy shit...! FRANK (to Sheryl) You married that guy? Sheryl shakes her head -- she can't believe it either. Frank runs down the aisle, jumps on stage, and dances next to Richard -- a surprisingly competent set of butt-wagging, party-music moves. Dwayne follows Frank up on stage. Sheryl pauses a moment and watches her family. Ric hard waves to Sheryl to join them. A beat. Then Sheryl walks, then runs, and jumps up on stage. Richard helps her up, and they dance together. Kirby cranks it up to "10". MUSIC is overpowering everything. As the song winds up, Sheryl lines up next to Olive for a unified series of thrusts. As the final cymbal crashes, Olive pulls up her shirt to reveal "Peach" is written on her tummy with magic marker. Audience MEMBERS respond with a standing ovation. Frank and Dwayne strut around with their arms in the air, like victorious professional wrestlers. Richard picks up Olive, swings her in the air. Sheryl walks over and hugs Richard and Olive. FADE TO BLACK AND SILENCE

Screenwriter Michael Arndt deservedly won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2007 because the script is a gem — exemplified by this scene. Every beat in the movie has been building to this moment. This is the Big Set Piece — and the scene delivers on every level, from the comic chaos of Olive’s dance routine to the satisfaction of this flawed and fractured family, coming together as one to support Olive in her moment of glory.

And don’t overlook the obvious: How Arndt manages to describe the action without bogging down the reader in endless details of Olive’s routine:

She rocks out, busting crazy moves this stage has never seen: shakes, shimmies, twirls, dips, undulations — a melange of MTV rump shakin’, Solid Gold Dancers re-runs, and out-of-left-field inventions of her own. Other moves are clearly drawn from Grandpa’s sixty-year career of strip-bar patronage.

The description is visual, fun, and establishes a clear feel for the moment.

As great as the scene is on paper, the job that co-directors Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, the actors, and the choreographer did in translating it onto the screen is equally masterful. There all sorts of grace notes throughout, each carrying with it meaning and emotional subtext. Check out the scene from the movie:

You can go here to see an extended interview with Arndt in which he describes how he came to write, then sell Little Miss Sunshine.

Go Into The Story

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