(SPOILERS: Little Miss Sunshine)
Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) is an interesting movie on which to break down three-act structure. It’s an independent film with a very strong ensemble. The first question we have is which character is the main character?
It might appear to be Olive since it is her desire to win Little Miss Sunshine that underlies the whole story. However, Olive is not really making any of the decisions that determine the outcome of the story beats. That character is the father, Richard. So Richard is our main character and his mission is to get Olive to the Little Miss Sunshine competition in California. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have several other very strong major characters in the movie. Richard is defined as the main character because he’s driving the structure.
Catalyst: Olive gets the news that she’s been accepted into the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. However it’s in California and she has to get there in a relatively short period of time. This is a dilemma for Richard, because the only way she can get there is if he drives the whole family in the van.
Main Conflict: Will Olive win Little Miss Sunshine? The question is implicitly asked by the audience when we learn she has been chosen as a contestant.
Act I Break: The family, led by Richard, embarks on the journey to California. (Will they get to California in time is the second act tension.)
Midpoint: Grandpa dies. This would seem to end the trip to California. Then Richard decides to steal the body and continue the journey.
Act II Break: They make it to the pageant a few minutes late but convince a contest employee to let Olive compete anyway.
Twist/Epiphany: Richard realizes that the beauty pageant is creepy. He doesn’t want Olive to compete, let alone win. He’s concerned about the impact of either outcome on Olive.
Resolution: Olive loses the competition but the family bonds on stage. The question of the Main Conflict is answered in the negative.
Which brings me to another interesting thing about this movie: in terms of the main conflict, the ending is unhappy. Thus since the resolution is a failure, the Act II break is a moment of success while the midpoint is a negative moment, reversing the usual structural alignment of a happy ending.
But the ending doesn't feel unhappy to the audience. This movie is an example of a fairly common structural form: the character gets what they want at the end of Act II but doesn’t want it anymore.
Let’s examine Richard’s want and need for a moment. At the beginning Richard wants Olive to win Little Miss Sunshine. In fact, he won’t agree to go on the journey until Olive assures him that she has a chance to win. Richard is trying to sell a motivational program he’s invented called the nine steps to success. Winning and losing is very important to him.
His need, however, is to support his family emotionally, win or lose. The family at the beginning is dysfunctional, not communicating, not helping each other achieve their goals. This is in large part because Richard is more focused on his program than on his role as husband and father. Over the course of the journey the family bonds. By the end of the movie, Richard no longer cares about winning or losing, he cares about his daughter’s happiness. When the whole family joins Olive on stage for her stripper dance in defiance of the pageant, it is a sign that Richard may have lost what he wanted but he has gained what he needed.