Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

The dark side of Little Miss Sunshine

by Rob - September 3rd, 2014.
Filed under: Scriptwriting. Tagged as: .

Attending Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt‘s talk “Endings: The Good, The Bad, and The Insanely Great” at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference earlier this year was a transformative experience for me; it was one of the best talks on the craft of writing I’d ever heard.

Arndt won the Oscar for best original screenplay for the 2006 movie Little Miss Sunshine. On the day after the conference, I read the screenplay; the next day, I watched the movie.

It’s a good film, with particularly great performances by Steve Carrell (in a very subdued role), Alan Arkin, and ten-year-old Abigail Breslin (who was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress). The finished film didn’t use the originally scripted final scene; the actual final scene in the film is much less effective (the coda after the climax).

But the film disturbed me, especially since it was made so recently (a decade after the JonBenet Ramsey murder). In it, we have a heroin-addicted grandfather (brilliantly portrayed by Arkin) who is into “nasty” porn (as he calls it) living with his son’s family. The grandfather is repeatedly cautioned that his speech is inappropriate around children, but he is incapable of controlling himself in this regard, and he’d been kicked out of his retirement home for unspecified unacceptable acts.

To his fifteen-year-old grandson, in front of the boy’s parents, he exhorts (per the screenplay; the lines as delivered by Arkin are slightly different in wording but have the exact same content):

Jesus! You’re what? Fifteen? You should be gettin’ that young stuff! There’s nothing in the world better than the young stuff. Look: right now you’re jailbait, they’re jailbait. So it’s fine. The minute you turn eighteen — Bam! You’re lookin’ at three to five.
And despite this, grandpa spends inordinate amounts of time down in the basement alone with his granddaughter (Abigail’s character is seven in the film), and shares a hotel room with her.

The hotel-room scene is sweet (one of the most famous from the film), but it’s not until the end that we find out what grandpa has been doing down in the basement all this time with his seven-year-old granddaughter: he’s been teaching her to do stripper dance moves to the song “Super Freak” so she can shock everyone at an upcoming child beauty pageant.

It’s supposed to be funny; it’s supposed to be moving; it’s supposed to be an “insanely great ending” … but, holy cow, I can see why Arndt had to kill grandpa before this revelation: because once you know what he’s been doing with the little girl, the notion that he and she are going to go back to spending private time together would be completely unpalatable.

Structurally, it’s an interesting film, the dialog is tight, the characters are quirky, and the screenplay action descriptions are a model of how it should be done. But, wow, really?

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1 Response to The dark side of Little Miss Sunshine

  1. That’s exactly how I felt about this movie. Very disturbing.

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