No matter the miles, seven-year-old Olive’s dysfunctional family are taking a road trip to California to fulfil her dream of winning the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. Like a fawn that’s walked into a circus, Olive prepares to perform alongside her candy-sleeved, teeth-parading counterparts. An air of inevitable failure fills the screen. Dressed in a top hat, oversized tie and untucked shirt, Olive (Abigail Breslin) begins a dance with her back to the audience, her arms wrapped around her, miming the snog-in-the-playground joke. For thirty seconds she seems to be winning the hearts of the mummies and daddies in the audience. Until the butt slaps… the sassy catwalk… and the pièce de résistance trouser strip.
‘I’d like to dedicate this to my grandpa, who showed me these moves.’
Jaws drop and brows furrow as Olive beams proudly, oblivious to the shame she has triggered in her adult onlookers with a joyful pelvic thrust. Because this is what we’re really talking about in Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s 2006 comedy-drama: shame.
Somewhere, somehow, along the unmarked road into adulthood we said ‘yes’ to an oversized rucksack of should nots and ‘no’ to the featherlight trailer that is I am. But in her performance, Olive instinctively communicates that this is what she is, this is how she feels, and she feels good.
Now down to loose fitting red hot pants and black glittery leotard, Olive spins as children do, stopping only through giddy excess. Her carefully rehearsed choreography to Rick James’s ‘Super Freak’ – unmastered yet precise – allows for loopholes of pure, sensational delight. In one particularly endearing moment, she sprints on the spot, hands running over her scalp and hair, teeth gritted in bodily bliss.
She’ll never be Little Miss Sunshine, but Olive wins. Any attempts to stop her – by the judges, the compère and even her own family (who end up supporting her on stage in an anarchic mash-up) – serve to highlight her untouchable happiness. She continues to leap in a circle with yawning arms, and the uplift is ecstatic even if her feet barely leave the ground.
She wins at allowing herself to experience her body’s capabilities. No judgements or censorship can be traced in her breathy roaring, her crawling lion imitation. She wins at being sensual without being sexual, instantly untangling the knot that so often binds adults. She wins at rousing the spirit of the watcher into desiring a taste of unrestrained pleasure. The very artlessness of Olive’s dance is a triumph.
Olive may not win the beauty pageant, but she succeeds in reminding us of the natural jubilance available to us if we would only bathe in our own sun. ●