One of the top movies of 2006 (nominated for 4 Oscars) is the off-beat comedy “Little Miss Sunshine” which is a vivid laugh-and-cry portrayal of embracing failure. With a range spanning slap stick to French literary intellectualism, it follows what appears to be a completely dysfunctional family through a Job like weekend of trying to get their daughter to a beauty pageant (Warning: for those who have not seen the film that some of my comments will discuss the plot which may spoil the viewing especially as there are several sub-plots that keep you wondering what is going to happen).
Along the way most failures that you can imagine befall them – job, health, passions, etc. And yet, the film has a thoroughly happy ending. Not in the stereotypical Hollywood everything-works-out-in-the-end manner, but through realisations and impacts on the characters lives in the face of this uncanny string of disasters.
Actually, besides just portraying non-stop failure in rich colourful detail, the film presents the same lessons about failure as my original piece on this subject.
· Learning – Failure enriches us with life-long lessons that make us who we are.
· Persistence – Rise each time you fall. One of Richard’s infamous ‘steps’
· Acceptance – In this case, sometimes failure is more positive than success.
LEARNING – The ‘lesson learning’ power of failure is something covered extensively in this blog (eg. Lousy Teacher, Failuremag.com) But the message is powerfully stated by Frank (played by Steve Carell who is most recently known for playing the Ricky Gervais character, quite brilliantly, in the American version of ‘The Office’) at the climactic point in the film. He is speaking with his angst-ridden teenage nephew Dwayne (I know, I know…you grammatical pedants out there who may accuse me of tautology as in ’what other types of teenage boys are there?’). Dwayne says, “Sometimes I wish I could go to sleep until I was eighteen and skip all this crap. High school and everything. Just skip it.” Richard’s character is a professor who is the world’s leading authority on Proust (well…ex-professor as he lost his job along with his lover and nearly his life) and he responds with the essence of the film:
“You know Marcel Proust…French writer. Total loser. Never had a real job. Unrequited love affairs. Gay. Spent twenty years writing a book almost no one reads. But he is also probably the greatest writer since Shakespeare. Anyway, he gets down to the end of his life, and he looks back and decides that all those years he suffered, those were the best years of his life because they made him who he was. All the years he was happy, you know, total waste, didn’t learn a thing.”
PERSISTENCE. Those who have been following this blog since its start or observant enough to have noticed the tagline at the top, will recognize the line from Dee Groberg’s poem ‘Rise each time you fall’ as sentiment which best captures the whole topic of embracing failure covered in this blog. ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ is like a film version of Dee Groberg’s poem ‘The Race’. And Grampa Edwin’s line ‘A real loser is someone who’s so afraid of not winning he doesn’t even try’ nearly mirrors the moral of ‘The Race’ – ‘For winning is no more than this: To rise each time you fall.”
Just to provide a sort of bas-relief, the father character, Richard played by Greg Kinnear, is a management/lifestyle guru obsessed with his ‘9 Step Programming to Winning.’ Curiously, he spends more of his lecturing about decrying ‘losing’ and ‘losers’ than he does focusing on winning. While many of his pronouncements are sterile, hackneyed echoes of an over-eager locker room coach (“Luck is the name losers give to their own failings”), the one principle which he espouses in word and deed is ‘never give up’. “Winners don’t give up on themselves.” In fact, the lengths to which he goes to keep on persisting when things go wrong are as inspiring as they are comedic.
ACCEPTANCE. There are lots of motivations for accepting ‘failure’, but ‘Sunshine’ highlights a rather novel notion that something ‘failure’ is actually a better thing than ‘winning’. Now some semantic purists will argue that if the ‘failure’ outcome is a ‘good’ outcome, then it is not really a ‘failure’ after all. My view is that the key to ‘acceptance’ in turning adversity to advantage is the mindset that looks for the bit of good (‘silver lining’) in any outcome. Sometimes that ‘bit of good’ is a relatively tiny piece in an otherwise large pile of bad stuff. Sometimes that ‘bit of good’ is actually quite substantial. And sometimes when you scrutinise more closely the big picture, you see that the good is even bigger than the bad despite first appearances being otherwise. This aspect of looking beneath the surface to the true substance of an experience is dramatically shown through the metaphor of a little girl’s odyssey to participate in a beauty pageant. And the final scene is about as touching a display of ‘embracing failure’ by all of the main characters as you will ever find. ‘Super Freak’ should be declared the anthem for turning embracing failure.