Here's where my family was a decade ago: My mom was doing her best to be a good mother to four kids while hiding her alcoholism and battling depression. My younger sister was self-harming. My youngest sister and my dad hardly spoke. My dad was too stressed out with work and money problems to worry about things at home. And I was angst-ridden in the insufferable way that only chemically-imbalanced teenage girls can be.
And 10 years ago, in 2006, the poignant dramedy Little Miss Sunshine hit theaters. It's about a family that takes a last-minute road trip in a wonky, yellow VW from Albuquerque to California for a junior beauty pageant.
Aspiring beauty queen Olive is our Little Miss Sunshine. Her overworked mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) seems to be on the verge of a breakdown at any minute, while her dad (Greg Kinnear) is a victory-obsessed motivational speaker who hides his major depression with militant optimism. Her older brother, Dwayne, is a Nietzsche devotee who's taken a vow of silence until he becomes a test pilot. He seems depressed, too. Olive's uncle, Frank (Steve Carell), is a Proust scholar who just tried to commit suicide after being scorned by his lover. And Edwin (Alan Arkin) is her heroin-snorting grandfather and pageant coach.
So yeah, they are what you'd call a "dysfunctional family." And, oh my god, they were just what 15-year-old me needed. Little Miss Sunshine is that rare film that paints family dysfunction in a very real light. The characters are textured portraits of people with problems. There's no tip-toeing around depression and addiction; there's no romanticizing or demonizing them, either. And the crippled family dynamics? They ring achingly true.
While the movie doesn't shy away from grim subject matter, if you've seen Little Miss Sunshine, then you know it's no gritty drama. It's actually as funny as it is serious. There's humor and levity alongside the heavyheartedness. Nothing is sugar-coated, but there are moments of such sweetness. The family is textbook-dysfunctional, but they have a lot of love. And everyone is trying.
What's really special to me about Little Miss Sunshine is how darkness and lightness coexist in such a beautiful and authentic way. Seeing that play out on the big screen was indescribably reassuring to me as a teenager with a less-than-perfect family. But, I think the film's message is reassuring to anyone. Happiness and dysfunction can go together. You can be struggling and still be okay.