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By Michael Schilf · August 10, 2010
Screenplay Genre: Indie Comedy
Movie Time: 101 minutes
Synopsis: A dysfunctional family struggles to overcome numerous setbacks on an 800-mile road trip from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Redondo Beach, CA in their yellow VW Microbus to get their seven-year-old daughter to the finals of the "Little Miss Sunshine" beauty pageant.
ACT I – Meet the Hoovers
Introduce Protagonist: Olive, a slightly plump 7-year old with glasses mimics the waving style of Miss America while watching a VHS tape of a past pageant. Although, she is part of an ensemble and it could be argued there are multiple protagonists, Olive is the only character who never actively opposes another character.
Introduce Supporting Characters (Ensemble):
Richard – a failed motivational speaker and life coach presents his 9 Step "Refuse to Lose" program to a sparsely filled classroom.
Dewayne – an apathetic troubled teen who has taken a Nietzschean vow of silence until he can become a test pilot works out in his room: push-ups, pull-ups, weights.
Grandpa – a foul-mouthed addict and Olive's pageant coach – evicted from a retirement home for doing heroin – snorts up in the family bathroom.
Sheryl – an overworked and pissed-off wife, worried sister, and loving mother nervously smokes a cigarette while driving to pick up her brother Frank.
Frank – a homosexual Proust scholar in a hospital wheelchair after a suicide attempt has no reaction to his sister's attempt to comfort him with a hug.
World of the Story: Tragedy is comedy. Despite all the family dysfunction – heroin addiction, a suicide attempt, teen isolation, breakdowns in marital communication – we see a family trying to stick together.
Status Quo: Financially strapped. Richard's 9 Step Program failing. Stuck with heroin addicted Grandpa. Put on Frank suicide watch. Dealing with Dewayne: "I Hate Everybody."
Status Quo Obstacle: The family's financial predicament all rests on whether or not Stan Grossman can sell Richard's 9 Step "Refuse to Lose" Program.
Dramatic Premise: The phone answering machine MESSAGE plays to an empty kitchen: girl forfeits her crown due to diet pills, giving Olive the win at regionals.
* Inciting Incident (Plot Point #1): Olive learns she qualified for the "Little Miss Sunshine" beauty contest being held in Redondo Beach, California in two days.
Introduce Antagonists: With all Trip with Destination scenarios, the situation itself is the primary external antagonist, but conflicts between characters act as internal antagonists.
Protagonist's Objective: Getting Olive to the "Little Miss Sunshine" beauty contest.
Predicament Obstacle #1: Richard has used up all their "seed" money on his 9 Steps Program, so they can't afford to fly, and Grandpa insists to going since he is Olive's coach, but they can't leave Frank and Dewayne alone.
Predicament Solution: Richard will Drive the VW Microbus and take the whole family.
* The Lock-In (Plot Point #2): When Richard asks Olive if she thinks she can win Little Miss Sunshine, Olive screams "Yes!" with white-hot determination. Now it's settled. Richard smiles and slaps the table: "We're going to California!"
ACT II – On the Road
Establish Second Act Main Tension: Making it to Redondo Beach, California so that Olive can compete in the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant
First Obstacle: The VW bus clutch is shot. It's the weekend. Mechanic can't get clutch fixed until maybe Thursday. They are stranded.
Obstacle Solution: Pop the clutch. Richard puts the VW in neutral while the family pushes, running along side and diving in the side door.
Subplot Revival: Stan Grossman situation. Richard – on a pay phone – finds out that Grossman wasn't able to sell his 9 Step Program. It leaves them, "Fucked."
Subplot Obstacle: A huge setback for Richard emotionally – ironically, he has lost with his "Refuse to Lose" program. But it also destroys the family's financial future.
Failure/Ramifications: Richard, determined to "fix this", takes a moped to Scottsdale, Arizona to find Stan Grossman at his hotel. Stan explains that he pushed the 9 Steps, but nobody bought it. It's over, but Richard refuses to accept the truth.
Raising the Stakes: The 9 Steps is a bust, but Richard is still in denial – Refusing to Lose. This blind faith in his program puts even greater strain on the family, especially Sheryl.
* First Culmination (Plot Point #3): The next day. Grandpa won't wake up.
New Obstacle: At hospital, Grandpa is declared dead, but the hospital won't let them leave the body nor can they take the body with them, crossing state lines.
Obstacle Solution: Richard, refusing to miss the contest, decides to take the body with them. Richard and Sheryl slide Grandpa, wrapped in a sheet, out the hospital window to Frank and Dewayne. Stuff him in trunk, and pop the clutch out of there.
Higher Obstacle: Pulled over by the Highway Patrol, and when asked to step out of the vehicle, Richard gives the trooper probable cause to search the trunk.
Obstacle Solution: Planting and Payoff. The trooper finds the porn mags Frank bought for Grandpa the previous day, appreciates the selection, and lets them go.
New Obstacle: Dewayne discovers he is colorblind and freaks out. They stop the VW Bus and Dewayne runs out to a field and refuses to continue on with them.
Obstacle Solution: Dewayne won't listen to anyone, so Richard sends Olive. Olive sits down next to her brother, puts her arm on his shoulder. He gets up. They go.
Highest Obstacle: Racing against the clock. 2:58! 2:59! Registration closes at 3PM. Richard speeds through a maze of service roads and crashes through a gate and into the hotel parking lot. Frank runs to the registration, only to be 5 minutes too late.
Obstacle Solution: Richard gets on his knees and begs. The official organizer won't budge, but the sound guy offers to put them in the system.
* Main Culmination (Plot Point #4): They accomplish their goal. Richard signs the release and Olive is registered to compete in Little Miss Sunshine.
ACT III – The Beauty Contest
Third Act Tension: Olive competing in the pageant.
Act Three Obstacles: Surviving the pageant. (1) Richard sitting through it, (2) Dewayne and Frank coming back to it, (3) Sheryl empowering Olive to continue it, and (4) Olive struggling to compete in it.
Character Arcs (Ensemble):
Dewayne – accepts that if you have a dream, you just go for it: "Fuck the Naval Academy. If I want to fly, I'll find a way. You do what you love and fuck the rest."
Frank – using Proust to illustrate, he realizes that suffering can be good because it forces you to think and grow. Clearly, he has accepted his own unrequited love.
Sheryl – empowers herself and Olive by protecting her daughter's dream: "Olive is who she is. This is what she's chosen to do…"
Richard –finally understands that sometimes losing is actually the best way to win.
Olive – No arc. Not needed. She is the only family member that wasn't broken.
The Last Obstacle: After seeing the other girls – mostly blond, some bleached, some spray tanned – in swim-suits, precocious evening-wear, and performing through the talent competition, both Richard and Dewayne – in an effort to protect her – don't want Olive to compete.
Obstacle Solution: Sheryl empowers Olive to decide if she wants to go on. Olive does.
* Third Act Twist (Plot Point #5): Olive's dance routine that Grandpa secretly helped choreographed. It's a burlesque performance to Rick James' "Super Freak".
Obligatory Scene: Olive is oblivious to the horrified reaction from the audience. The organizers are enraged, demanding Richard remove Olive from the stage, but instead, the entire family comes to her rescue by dancing along side with her.
Resolution: The Little Miss Sunshine organizers agree to drop the charges on the condition that they don't enter Olive in a child beauty contest in the State of California ever again. Agreed. They drive back home together, except for Grandpa – only a hospital sheet remains.
New Status Quo: A family united… and closer because of the shared experience.