Friday, September 18, 2009

Mythology Structure in Little Miss Sunshine

(SPOILERS: Little Miss Sunshine)

Last post I analyzed Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) using the three-act structure. Now I want to analyze it with the mythology structure. Let’s start with the phases of the hero’s journey (Remember, Richard is our main character).

Inciting Incident: Olive gets the call that she’s been accepted into the Little Miss Sunshine pageant.

Call to Adventure: They need to get Olive to California. Richard’s the only one who can drive the van.

Resisting the Call: Richard doesn’t want to go. He’s hoping to hear back from Stan Grossman about a book proposal based on his nine-step program.

Accepting the Call: Once it’s clear the only way Olive can get to the competition is if Richard drives, he elicits a guarantee from her that she thinks she can win. Once he gets that, he agrees to the trip.

Meeting the Mentor: It’s a little difficult to identify the mentor character in this movie. Grandpa acts as somewhat of a mentor, challenging Richard’s misguided beliefs and comforting him when he fails. But so does Olive by demonstrating the importance of passion and acceptance of oneself – things Richard definitely needs to learn. Olive wants to win, but she’s more concerned about the joy of competition and rocking her own unique dance routine. So I’d say both these characters are mentors.

Allies and Enemies: In this story Richard meets his allies and enemies – his family – before he enters the special world. (This is unusual, but one of the things to keep in mind about the mythology structure is that it’s very flexible.) The one exception is the van which is introduced upon entrance into the special world – and is very much a character.

Entering the Special World: The family embarks on the trip. The special world here is represented by the van. It is a world of family togetherness, something not present in the opening scenes when we see each character involved in their own worlds, barely communicating, unable to even sit at the table together for more than a couple minutes. The multi-state journey crammed together in a little yellow van is a very different “world” for this particular family.

Visiting the Oracle: I see Stan Grossman as an oracle in this story. Richard makes a journey to Scottsdale to confront Stan about the future of his nine-step program. Stan tells Richard that the program is not going to be bought. The important message for Richard is that he has failed – and he better figure out a way to deal with that.

Innermost Cave: The hospital. This is the location of one of the most intense elements of familial relations – the loss of a loved one. Richard has to deal with the reality of this.

Supreme Ordeal: Stealing Grandpa’s body when the death counselor tells them they cannot continue to California until they make funeral arrangements.

Seizing the Elixir: The elixir in this movie is Richard learning to care more about his family than about winning and losing. By stealing Grandpa’s body and continuing the journey to California, Richard is making a commitment to Olive, one that trumps what might be in his own interests.

Let me pause here for a minute and say I'm a little torn on the last three. I can see Richard's journey to Scottsdale as an alternative Innermost Cave where he faces the Supreme Ordeal of learning he's failed at his nine-step program and Seizes the Elixir of accepting that he doesn't have all the answers. But the reason I'm placing the innermost cave at the hospital is that the cave is meant to be the deepest part of the special world. Scottsdale is more a part of the old, normal world for Richard. In Scottsdale he's left the family to pursue his misplaced dream. So I'm calling that a visit to the oracle.

It's a point worth arguing, though, in terms of story analysis. However as writers we could pick whichever interpretation is most useful to us. I might even consider it a double innermost cave where Richard receives two separate pieces of the elixir he needs to find happiness.

Death and Resurrection: The hospital scene. In addition to Grandpa’s death, we see Olive's hopes for pageant success apparently die – and then be reborn when Richard demonstrates his character change by stealing the body. Remember, the purpose of the death and resurrection stage is to metaphorically reflect the death of the old character and the birth of the new.

Return: The family arrives at the competition and is released from the van.

Final Conflict: Olive’s dance performance. Richard is faced with his daughter’s unique performance, one sure to lose her the contest, and must deal with the anger of the pageant organizers. Richard chooses to join Olive on stage rather than succumb to the contest’s ideas of success and failure.

Master of Both Worlds: By joining Olive, Richard has mastered the special world of family togetherness. And he has also mastered his original world of success and failure, one it turns out he was not as much a master of as he thought.


Hero: Richard. He is the one going on a journey of change.

Shadow: Olive. In this case the shadow is not a villain. But Olive’s innocence and joy is in direct contrast to Richard’s cold evaluation of success and failure.

Mentor: Both Grandpa and Olive as mentioned.

Shape shifter: Sheryl. Though she loves him, she is at times an unreliable ally.

Oracle: Stan Grossman, as mentioned.

Trickster: Frank, the suicidal brother-in-law with a wry comment always at the ready.

Threshold Guardians: The mechanic, challenging Richard’s commitment to the journey. The death counselor at the hospital who tries to prevent his progress in the innermost cave. The pageant worker who won’t enter their information because they are a couple minutes late for registration on the threshold of the Final Conflict.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks for this. I am writing an essay about the film in terms of three act structure and character archetypes and was really struggling to place both Olive and Frank. This was extremely helpful. I saw you didn't mention Dewayne. I thought he was also a shape shifter, most obviously due to the fact that he started talking. Anyway Thanks