A VW bus that has to be pushed or rolled to start it. A family comprised of wildly disparate members, including a heroin-snorting grandpa, a platitude-spouting motivational speaker father, and a Nietzsche-obsessed son who hasn’t said a word for nine months.
What’s not to like about “Little Miss Sunshine”? We saw the movie last Friday, thanks to Salem Cinema’s decision to bring it back for another run. It’s a feel-good tribute to eccentric dysfunction, something I know more than a little about.
Automotively, I felt right at home watching the family of Olive, an aspiring seven year-old beauty queen, coax their VW from New Mexico to California so she could enter the Little Miss Sunshine pageant.
In 1968 I became the owner of my mother’s ’57 VW Bug when she got a ’67 model. I loved it. And I hated it. VW’s of that era were equally (1) marvels of German engineering and (2) pieces of crap.
That’s what made them so interesting. You never knew whether Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde was going to appear when you turned the key. I remember the day my VW got me safely through a nasty Sierra snowstorm. I also recall driving along scraping ice from the windshield. On the inside.
There were a lot of positive qualities to my ’57 Bug. The heater wasn’t one of them.
So it was an enjoyable flashback to watch the VW in “Little Miss Sunshine” drive the family crazy with little quirks like a horn that wouldn’t shut off and a broken clutch that required the push-starting routine.
When my VW’s engine compartment caught fire on a San Jose street in the late ’60s it didn’t surprise me at all. I just pulled over, grabbed a fire extinguisher, and called it another day in the life of a Volkswagen owner.
I’m horribly un-mechanical. But with the aid of that marvelous book, “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive,” I learned how to crawl under my successor VW (a Karmann Ghia) with a screwdriver and get it running again when, for some forgotten reason, it decided that it didn’t want to start. Which was frequent, as I recall.
Still, I remember those cars with much more fondness than the blandly reliable Japanese models that, when I became a family man, I eventually turned to. A dash of dysfunction adds spice. Too much of it gives you psychic indigestion. But too little leaves a hunger for the wild side.
Growing up, I took for granted that the abnormal was normal. For that, I’m now grateful to my dysfunctional nuclear and extended family. We had alcoholism, divorce (lots of it), affairs, scandals.
I don’t know if the “cocktail hour” is still common. It was in my family during my pre-teen years. As the youngest in the room, usually, during family gatherings my job would be to hand out the drinks. Then I’d perch in a corner, sip a coke, and listen to the gossip.
I accepted all the dysfunction as part of usual family life, not having any other basis for comparison. My uncle played the bagpipes. And, polo. (Not at the same time, though, so far as I know). I thought that was normal too. Now I honor him for his eccentricity, and am sorry that I gave up so soon on the starter bagpipes that he sent me.
When I became a teenager I went through my own existential despair phase. I wasn’t into Nietszche, unlike Little Miss Sunshine’s Dwayne. But the weirder side of Bob Dylan (was there any other side to him in the ‘60s?) touched my dark soul. Also, Henry Miller, who wrote in “Tropic of Capricorn”:
But if you would laugh when others laugh and weep when they weep you must be prepared to die as they die and live as they live. That means to be right and to get the worst of it at the same time. It means to be dead while you are alive and alive only when you are dead. In this company the world always wears a normal aspect, even under the most abnormal conditions. Nothing is right or wrong but thinking makes it so.
I included this quote in a letter that I wrote to my high school girlfriend, Mary. She and her family were wonderfully functional. They helped keep me on as even a keel as I could manage during some extra-dysfunctional adolescent years. For that I’m also grateful.
However, I still resonate with Henry Miller. You’ve got to laugh and weep on your own terms, not anyone else’s. That’s what made “Little Miss Sunshine” so appealing to me. The members of this family march to their own dysfunctional drummers.
And by the time you get to the closing credits, they seem like the most engagingly normal people you’ll ever meet.