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Movie Review: Little Miss Sunshine

It is a well-known fact that conflict of any type is usually associated with uncomfortable or unhealthy situation. Northouse (2012), on the other hand, stresses on its overall and nesessary presence in various leadership situations; he also mentions that conflict can even produce a positive change. This essay is a review of the movie “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006), where the conflict clearly intermingles with a daily life of the main characters. Most of the direct quotes are adopted from the IMBD website (2012).

There are various approaches to assess conflicts, which is the process of gathering the information about its dynamics. Wehr (1979), in his book Conflict Regulation, presents a ‘Conflict Mapping Guide’ to demonstrate: “both the intervener and the conflict parties a clearer understanding of the origins, nature, dynamics, and possibilities for resolution of conflict” (19). As an evaluation tool (Shmueli, 2003) in the review of the chosen movie, a series of questions designed to focus on certain components of conflict developed by Hocker-Wilmot known as Conflict Assessment Guide are used. The analysis is based upon the information available at the website of the Department of Information Networking and Telecommunications at Fort Hays State University (2012).

The name of the movie comes from the so-called beauty pageant, which seven year old girl Olive Hoover, dreams to win. Her family is her father Richard, a lecturer on winners and losers; her mother Sheryl, a constant smoker and working mother who usually buys a bucket of chicken to be counted as a cooked meal; Olive’s uncle and Sheryl’s brother Frank – a suicidal gay, her grandfather Edwin – a drug addict; and brother Dwayne – a young man with a dream to get into the Air Force.

The main conflict develops between Richard and Sheryl: Richard talks a lot about how to be a winner and not to lose, but does not seem to cope with that task himself. Sheryl understands that such approach is merely his self-educated program, which does not work in real life; he just wants to put it upon all the family. All that Sheryl wants is to simply to keep her family happy. Richard’s repetitive usage of the ‘winner-looser’ phrases include: “There’s two kinds of people in this world, there’s winners and there’s losers. Okay, you know what the difference is? Winners don’t give up” (IMBD, 2012). Grandfather Edwin as an older and experienced person often tries to add to their quarrelling, although there are episodes when he soothes a conflict. He also uses the following phrase occasionally: “A real loser is someone who is so afraid of not winning, he doesn’t even try” (IMBD, 2012). Grandfather seems to be the only person who is really interested in Olive to win a contest.

There is no unique answer to how the characters perceive conflict besides Olive, who is yet too na?ve and young. Richard, Sheryl, Frank and Edwin are more negative than neutral regarding the conflict, and only Dwayne seemed to be positive in the first part of a movie before he found out that he is colour blind and thus can not fly planes. In the episode, when his uncle Frank turned on the TV in the hotel, he would turn it off in response and rather listen to his parents quarrel in the neighbouring room; the fact that proved his satisfaction was his spiteful and conceited smile.

Richard, while speaking with others always tries to teach them, he is the main conflict provoker. He even affected others trying to sound sarcastic:

Richard: Sarcasm is the refuge of losers.

Frank: [sarcastically] It is? Really?

Richard: Sarcasm is losers trying to bring winners down to their level.

Frank: [sarcastically] Wow, Richard, you’ve really opened my eyes to what a loser I am. How much do I owe you for those pearls of wisdom?

Richard: Oh, that ones on the house (IMBD, 2012).

Everybody in that family has a different cultural backgrounds and interests, and that could be a reason for the provoking of conflict as well. Frank, a renowned Proust scholar, Dwayne, a fanatical follower of Nietzsche, and Richard, academia representative – all those three although somehow involved in science, they are very different in their manners of communication and in the attitude towards the others. For example, here are Dwayne’s written and spoken words showing that he hates everyone:

Frank: So who do you hang around with?

Dwayne: [shakes his head]

Frank: No one?

Dwayne: [whips out a pen and notebook from his back pocket. Bangs the end of the pen on table and writes on a notepad: “I Hate Everyone.”]

Frank: What about your family?

Dwayne: [deeply underlines “Everyone”] (IMBD, 2012).

His communication with Sheryl, when she tries to persuade Dwayne to go to California with everybody also deserves particular attention:

Dwayne: This is unfair; all I ask is that you leave me alone.

Sheryl: Dwain, flight school. I will give you permission for flight school.

Dwayne: [cuffs the table and, as a form of agreement, shakes her hand]. He writes: but I am not going to have any fun there (IMBD, 2012).

As we see, Sheryl is the only mature woman there. The fact of number in gender inequality: one women and four men is also an important issue that operates in this conflict. Sheryl has higher expectations about her husband who brings income to the family. She loves her brother and her son, she respects her father-in-law despite the fact that he is a cocaine addict. Sheryl and Richard are so plunged into their routine and problems that they do not have much time for their children.

The nature of the conflict becomes less evident with every later episode as the characters are trying to reach mutual goal: help Olive to win the contest. In this case, a beauty pageant is a positive external event, which is embedded into the conflict. Their old car is the only way of transportation to get to the contest. It seems like the house, as a symbol of routine, which is one of the main reasons for conflict. Before going to California, Sheryl and Richard were quarrelling which ways of transportation they should take as they cannot afford taking the plane. When they got out of the house, eventually they became one whole family although the beginning of the trip is characterized by various sharp discussions provoked mostly by grandfather Edwin.

In his communication with the grandson, he asks Dwayne a very personal question directly:

Edwin: Are you gettin’ any?

Richard: Dad!

Edwin: You can tell me, Dwayne. Are you gettin’ any?

Richard: Come on, please.

Edwin: [Dwayne shakes his head] No? Jesus. You’re what? Fifteen? My God, man!

Richard: Dad!

Edwin: You should be gettin’ that young stuff.

Richard: Dad!

Edwin: That young stuff is the best stuff in the whole world.

Richard: Hey! Hey! Dad! That’s enough! Stop it!

Edwin: Will you kindly not interrupt me, Richard! See, right now you’re jailbait, they’re jailbait. It’s perfect. I mean, you hit 18, man! You’re talkin’ about three to five (IMBD, 2012).

As we see, Edwin does not seem to have child and grandchild subordination in this case, as he considers them to be already grown up. The only person that he really loves is little Olive:

Olive: Grandpa, am I pretty?

Edwin: You are the most beautiful girl in the world.

Olive: You’re just saying that.

Edwin: No! I’m madly in love with you and it’s not because of your brains or your personality (IMBD, 2012).

Olive was dedicated to her grandfather; he seemed to be a real friend of hers as well. His death affected not only her but the whole family became closer trying to reach Olive’s dream together. They were not only cooperating when pushing the car together or stealing the dead body of the Edwin; the team spirit was in the air. It even affected Dwayne, who finally showed sincere smile as a sign of enjoying all the adventures with his family. Olive added a moment of light with her thoughts and questions about heaven:

Olive: Do you think there’s a Heaven?

Frank: Well, it’s hard to say, Olive. I don’t think anyone knows for sure.

Olive: I know, but what do YOU think?

Frank: Well… um… uh…

Olive: I think there is.

Frank: Think I’ll get in?

Olive: Yeah.

Frank: Promise?

Olive: Yeah (IMBD, 2012).

Corresponding melody and sky episodes added a special spirit to that scene. There was another real break through, which helped the family to be even much closer; at first it seemed that it could take different direction when Edwin discovered his colour-blindness:

Olive: Mom, Dwayne’s got 20/20 vision!

Sheryl: I bet he does…

Olive: Now, let’s see if you’re colour-blind.

[opening the pamphlet]

Olive: What’s the letter in the circle?

[Dwayne looks confused]

Olive: No in the circle. The letter… in the circle?

Frank: Can you see a letter, Dwayne?

Olive: It’s an A. See? Right there?

Frank: It’s bright green.

[To himself]

Frank: Oh man.

[Dwayne scribbles anxiously on his notepad – “What?”]

Frank: Dwayne, I think you might be colour-blind.

[After pause Dwayne holds up his notepad again – “What?”]

Frank: You can’t fly jets if you’re colour-blind (IMBD, 2012).

Dwayne started to panic hitting the window and the chair in front of him. Then he attempted to open the door. After they stopped the car and he run aside, he started hysterically yelling at everybody during the talk with Sheryl; Olive saved the situation with her sincere hug.

The characters do not discuss the power much; in this case it is substituted with words about winner and losers. There are mainly two things that made the characters dependent on each other: their car as the only mean of transportation and willingness to help Olive to win a contest. Olive, the youngest in the family was able to balance the power between all the characters and, at the end, they become a united family.

Every party has its own styles and tactics of behaviour and communication with others. The most different was the style of Dwayne, who being a fanatical follower of Nietzsche has taken a silence vow. That allowed him to escape from the family which he hates and whose single presence torments him. Others perceived his style naturally. When Frank had to stay in the same room with Dwayne, his behaviour was neither welcoming nor very hostile:

Frank: Good night Dwayne.

Dwayne: [scribbles on notepad] Don’t kill yourself tonight.

Frank: Not on your watch Dwayne. I wouldn’t do that to you.

Dwayne: [on notepad] Welcome to hell.

Frank: Thanks Dwayne. Coming from you that means a lot (IMBD, 2012).

As we see, Dwayne’s style kept all a bit under pressure and, at the same time, nobody would mind that he had chosen to keep silence and communicate through his notebook. On one hand, such style was an advantage since most of the time he was neutral in conflict formation, but pure silence is unsuitable to a healthy person and his communication could at least partially help to avoid a conflict; we can see that from the scenes when he started talking. Sheryl and Frank were the characters whose tactics were mostly collaborative and, Richard and Edwin’s behaviour is more characterized as competitive. Such different styles of behaviour at the end impacted the outcome of their desire: although they became one united family, the attention to the details of, for example, to what their daughter was preparing for the contest had to be drawn at the beginning.

Assessing the conflict itself, it is important to mention about the repetitive patterns of ‘losers and winners’ talk that characterizes this conflict. The communication triangles, which brought the destructive tone to this conflict, are: ‘Richard-Sheryl-Edwin,’ ‘Frank-Dwayne-Richard’ and ‘Richard-Edwin-Dwayne.’ At the same time, whenever Olive was included into their communication, the conflict seemed to attenuate.

Once the parties have realized their dedication to Olive’s winning of the contest, or at least, her participation there, which is the main reason why they drove so many miles from Albuquerque to California, the relations in the family started to be self-regulated. The anger was managed more productively and the conflict itself seemed to be extinct.

As we see, a little na?ve girl basically helped to manage the conflict. Participation in the contest was an attempted solution, which helped to solve the problem of conflict. They were travelling in one car, their great island of adventures, which made them united. It could have been better, if everybody was involved in that adventure from the very beginning but not discussing their issues and quarrelling under Olive’s headphones when she was listening to music. When she asked what they were talking about, Edwin replied: “Politics.” This is a great example of how not to behave in front of the children. When you have such a unique opportunity to spend so much time with your family, you have to value its every moment.

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