Quick Answer: In Little Miss Sunshine, depressed scholar Frank and alienated teenager Dwayne represent the philosophies of Marcel Proust and Friedrich Nietzsche, respectively. While Olive and her father pursue the American dream of success and perfection, Frank and Dwayne realize the absurdity of conforming to societal measures of success. These two characters synthesize the writings of Nietzsche and Proust, concluding that people should do what they want to do in order to be happy. Frank also teaches the Proustian idea that suffering makes us who we are. With help from these two great minds of philosophy and literature, the family rejects the concept of the beauty contest, embracing the ideas of subjective truth and personal value systems.
At first glance, it's easy to read Little Miss Sunshine (2006) as a typical underdog story: an average girl named Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) wants to win a beauty pageant. It's the sort of movie that seems to uphold the American assumptions that everyone has equal opportunities and that being a winner is of the utmost importance. As it turns out, Little Miss Sunshine uses different philosophical frameworks to make the case that American perfectionism and standards of beauty are superficial and don't lead to true happiness. Ultimately, the film rejects unchallenged societal expectations with the help of two members of the Hoover family: Frank (Steve Carell) and Dwayne (Paul Dano). These two characters synthesize the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and Marcel Proust, combining elements of both and concluding that people should do what they want to do in order to be happy.
Steve Carell as Frank and Paul Dano as Dwayne
Frank is Olive's uncle and the preeminent Proust scholar in the United States (or so he says). When we first meet the listless Frank, he's recently attempted suicide. He's lost both his lover and his genius grant to a hated rival, and he is struggling to go on — a fitting embodiment of the themes of In Search of Lost Time, which deals with our melancholy relationship with the past, our regrets, and our feeling for what we have lost. As the narrator writes, "I felt myself still reliving a past which was no longer anything more than the history of another person."
Dwayne is Olive's angsty teenage brother, shown early on reading Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra and wearing a shirt that reads "Jesus Was Wrong." He even has a wall-sized painting of Nietzsche hanging on his bedroom wall. Dwayne takes a vow of silence inspired by the great philosopher, using Nietzsche's radical energy and idea of the Übermensch to channel his disdain toward others. As an angry teenager, Dwayne understands nihilism as a reason to hate the world and everyone in it. But at this stage Dwayne misunderstands Nietzsche, whose nihilism was not a rejection of life but an affirmation of an authentic life unbound by false values.
Dwayne's painting of Nietzsche
According to Nietzsche's Will to Power, "Nihilism is...not only the belief that everything deserves to perish; but one actually puts one's shoulder to the plough; one destroys." But Nietzsche also writes that while the advent of nihilism, for both the individual and society, is a moment of upheaval, the aftermath is hopeful: "I praise, I do not reproach, [nihilism's] arrival. I believe it is one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether man recovers from it, whether he becomes master of this crisis, is a question of his strength. It is possible" (Complete Works, Vol. 13).
Dwayne's life philosophy is tested when he learns that he is colorblind, a medical condition that rules out his dream of joining the Air Force. Angered at this realization, all he can do is point out his family's flaws and reject those who love him. Frank, who is also suffering a great deal, understands Dwayne's pain. Frank gets through to his nephew with a lesson from the writings of Proust: suffering makes us who we are. Frank tells Dwayne that Proust decided that "all those years he suffered, those were the best years of his life, 'cause they made him who he was. All those years he was happy? You know, total waste. Didn't learn a thing. So, if you sleep until you're 18... Ah, think of the suffering you're gonna miss." Here Frank alludes to In Search of Lost Times passages like "We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full."
Fittingly, in Little Miss Sunshine, the two characters who are most obviously in emotional pain (or most conscious of that pain) are the two most philosophically evolved. Both Frank and Dwayne are introspective, intelligent characters whose need to develop and live in accordance with a personal philosophy appears to be connected to their capacity for personal suffering. Nietzsche and Proust both viewed suffering as essential in spiritual progress. According to the narrator of Proust's In Search of Lost Time, “Happiness is salutary for the body but sorrow develops the powers of the spirit.” After talking with Frank, Dwayne realizes that nihilism doesn't mean giving up on life; Nietzsche may have attacked existing structures of belief, but he also put forward a life-affirming philosophy that emphasizes self-determination and the will to power. Dwayne uses Frank's lesson to deepen his understanding of Nietzsche, resolving, "If I want to fly, I'll find a way to fly. You do what you love and fuck the rest."
Meanwhile, Frank stops mourning his previous life and feeling stuck in the past by engaging with the now. No longer an exaggerated Proustian figure with a "fate to pursue only phantoms" (In Search of Lost Time), he bonds with his relatives and takes an interest in their lives, finding a way out of his past through the present.
While Frank and Dwayne are the most alienated characters, they are the only members of the Hoover family who can identify the absurdity of trying to conform to mass societal standards without questioning why. They stand in stark opposition to Olive's father Richard (Greg Kinnear), who pushes the American ideals of success and perfection onto his family. As a motivational speaker and life coach, he teaches others how to become winners even though he struggles himself to live up to his own definition of the word.
The beginning of Little Miss Sunshine seems to reinforce the superficial and commercial aspects of American culture. These ideals have particular influence over Olive, who spends her time watching old tapes of Miss America pageants and mimicking the winners' actions. Since she's so young, Olive represents the pure and unadulterated American dream. At this point, she is still malleable, open to influence from competing life philosophies, as represented through her family members and the pageant attendees. Olive looks to the old pageant videos to learn how girls should look and behave, innocently absorbing the sort of American values that hold outer beauty in high esteem. While Olive wants to be as glamorous as Miss America, she doesn't embody the typical pageant aesthetic. She's a glasses-wearing seven-year-old, endearingly quirky and a bit chubby. Despite her odds, Olive's naive hope that she will win the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant is infectious and unwavering, due in part to the support of her loving, eccentric Grandpa Edwin (Alan Arkin). Her grandpa, who places little value in convention, believes wholeheartedly in Olive's beauty, telling her, "You are the most beautiful girl in the world... I'm madly in love with you and it's not because of your brains or your personality." Meanwhile, the obsessively competitive Richard lectures his daughter on drive and self-sacrifice. He tells her that she can be a winner if she just wants it more than everyone else, planting confusing oversimplifications in the girl's mind.
Abigail Breslin as Olive Hoover
The undeveloped Olive begins to form her own life philosophy during the pivotal scene at a diner. When Olive orders waffles with ice cream for breakfast, her mother Sheryl (Toni Collette) questions the choice but allows it. Richard, on the other hand, tells Olive that ice cream is fattening and that the Miss America contestants aren't fat. Olive is presented with the choice between her own happiness and conforming to traditional beauty standards. When the ice cream arrives, Olive dejectedly offers it to her family. Frank, Dwayne, Sheryl and Grandpa Edwin want to be supportive of Olive's original choice and each take a bite of ice cream. This causes Olive to smile and give into her own happiness, rejecting the values of Richard's outward-looking, conforming American society.
The Hoover family having breakfast at a diner
According to Nietzsche's perspectivist conception of truth, values are subjective since they all stem from someone else's perspective. Therefore, mass American values should be taken as subjective, not fact. Proust likewise echoes Nietzsche's subjective truth, writing, for example, “The universe is true for us all and dissimilar to each of us" (In Search of Lost Time).
As Dwayne comes to understand, we unlock our potential for happiness when we reject society's attempt to continually evaluate our lives and determine our worth based on our external attributes. "Fuck beauty contests," Dwayne concludes. "Life is one fucking beauty contest after another." While Dwayne's questioning society's "truths" first involves negation and rejection, the process eventually results in liberation — the freedom to choose a meaningful life based on one's own values. There will be a light at the end of the tunnel for the suffering thinker. As Proust's In Search of Lost Time tells us, "sometimes illumination comes to our rescue at the very moment when all seems lost; we have knocked at every door and they open on nothing until, at last, we stumble unconsciously against the only one through which we can enter the kingdom we have sought in vain a hundred years - and it opens.”
Dwayne reads Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Olive comes to understand the basics of the same philosophy when she doesn't win the beauty pageant. Society's subjective expectations mean that Olive doesn't win the pageant, but beauty pageant judges have no objective authority to declare that Olive is not as "good" as anyone else. Their judgment shouldn't interfere with her pursuing her dreams, although she may find that some dreams (like that of becoming Miss America) turn out to be false over time. Completing the family's philosophical journey, even the uptight, success-obsessed Richard learns to reject the highly specific and narrow expectations of society when he realizes that the judgments of his daughter, who merely wants to perform and express her joyful personality, are artificial, superficial and ultimately harmful.
With a little help from two of the greatest minds in philosophy and literature, Little Miss Sunshine teaches us that it's okay to disagree with societal expectations, and it's the suffering we experience along the way that makes us who we are.