Between the profane and the spiritual, A Jungian guide to ‘Little Miss Sunshine’
What is this? I hear you ask, does a critique of a light road movie comedy, an ensemble cast with few incidents really warrant an in-depth investigation. What has this to do with the Works of Carl Jung and the movement of Depth Psychology. It’s just an amusement, a pleasant enough way to pass the time with popcorn
I agree. Yet curiously as I became drawn into the story, the characters and the set-up denouement, I suddenly realised that underneath the laughs, mishaps and the narrative that there was something much deeper underneath.
Now I am aware that screenwriters have often used Joseph Campbells ‘the Hero’s Journey’ as a writing tool reference to give some emotional depth to the screen plays they work laboriously on ( in teams) to get the audience to emotionally care about what happens to their fictional characters on the silver screen. The eponymous ‘Star Wars’ is often described as cowboys and Indians in space. However, the linear narratives of the hero(ine) movie, I find to generally fool us into connecting with the fictional, by the use of speed. We are not permitted to question what is going on, it is obvious that the natural flow of the story does not require the everyday parts of life. Usually the characters don’t eat, sleep etc. Any injuries are recovered from quickly, the time frame moves us along, so we are blind to the fiction. Sometimes things don’t quite add up, or characters appear and disappear without comment.
When I look at movies this way, I consider them as a dreamlike trance fiction; a concoction of a multiple unconscious processes in the minds of the many creative artistes working to create the grand illusion to which we the dumb audience impart some half-forgotten meaning. Sometimes it is what it is, the movie does what it says on the can. It reveals nothing unknown, the good hero survives, and the bad other perish. The ideal natural order becomes restored.
Curiously no one really knows how to concoct the ideal movie, there are flaws, sometimes these flaws make a movie attractive, to join the pantheon of those we choose to remember (the classics!). Everybody has their favourites or else a great feeling of discomfort that somehow it doesn’t work (how many movies I’ve seen where the sense of relief that now it must end shortly, crossed my mind)
Jung and Alchemy. The stages of psychoanalysis
Before I begin, I will introduce quickly a truncated view of the Alchemical terms used commonly in Jungian Analysis. Carl Jung collected alchemical manuscripts as he recognised that within these ancient texts lay a metaphorical pathway. They were a map of the unfurling path that lead to Individuation.
There are many stages in the Rosarium Philosophorum, here reduced to 4 main stages.
Nigredo. We put separate substances into the crucible and apply heat. They darken at first, turning black
Albredo. The further action of heat turns this compound white.
Citrinitas. The substances interact, bond a new substance is created
Rubedo. Tipped out of the crucible, a new use for the compound can be found.
Little Miss sunshine. A Jungian journey.
So why have I chosen this particular film? I first noticed that, unlike many other movies, I experienced a joyful catharsis at the end of this, somehow there was an emotional link between myself and the overarching narrative. This was not the usual ‘Disneyfied’ emotional mugging, with the increased tension set-up and swelling musical chords resolution. This had a difference that was worth exploring in depth. I had, as they say, Got it!
100 minutes, that’s all there is. The narrative is episodic, sometimes the flow is choppy, there are actually few characters, the main story is about a family. There’s a road trip, a grotesque beauty pageant and a cathartic ending. Not much on paper, and yet, as I intend to illustrate there is a richness in all this to be enjoyed on many levels. Somehow, like a new recipe of strange ingredients, blended together and baked, the result is more than the whole.
The main focus is on an American dysfunctional family. They live a mundane enough life in the suburbs of Albuquerque, a blended family after divorce (with the hint of a more prosperous sisters to the wife) They are clearly struggling with a household of believable, though exaggerated, recognisable personalities. A harassed family mother, a loser father (sorry but he is) a naughty grandfather, a silent Nietzsche reading teenage son and a pure child, a daughter who seems untouched and protected by the adult world of worries and stress.
This nuanced dystopia becomes disrupted by the arrival of the suicidal brother (incidentally gay), a Proustian scholar academic, also now a victim of failure, (career, and love affair). He becomes an outside guest to this chaotically balanced group.
The Daughter, ‘Olive’ plain though with an inner beauty, hears she has won a heat in a beauty competition, and the family decide, after an argument where all the tensions are laid bare, to go on a road trip in their old VW microbus to California, so that Olive can have her big chance.
So, it’s a road movie, the great movie metaphor for personal growth, quirky certainly but the narrative is immediately familiar.
The Road Movie. Part 1
The road trip serves, in our dreamscape, as an opportunity beckoning, in movies it has become shorthand for a moment of personal reflection and growth. However, there was something else in Little Miss Sunshine’s structure. I recognised it after my second viewing, just to ensure that I was not deceived. This trip, 2 days in ‘real time’ occupying 100 minutes of our time was the journey of individuation, seen also in the process of Jungian analysis.
The Jungian tradition borrows liberally from the culture of Alchemical transformation, not base metals into gold (a common belief) but serving as a metaphor for individual and spiritual development.
In short, the process of the Rosarium Philosophorum has 4 main stages, namely Nigredo (the initial blackening, the long night of the soul. The realisation that things aren’t feeling right),
Albedo (the whitening, the first step of transformation) Citrinitas (the coming together of what was there into a new form) and Rubedo (the rebuilding) .
This process is the matrix of this movie, hiding in plain sight.
This is the shift in perceptions of the characters that we are now privileged to watch as the willing audience.
The Family (archetypes and the group)
Each of the main characters inhabits an archetypal role, easily recognised, with no real need to fill in the backstory; we already know what and who we are looking at.
These archetypes are also part of us, unconsciously serving our subjective take on the world. Out of sight they nuance our experience. We recognise these forms in others and connect instantly to them. This is the writers shorthand craft to compose the compelling narrative (ridiculous or not, we will become drawn in easily).
Here, briefly we have the Wise old man (and the manifest shadow), the King without power, Mother courage( here are the main elements of animus and anima to balance the family group) the failed Magician, the Nietzschean priest/warrior and of course the Puella Aeternus.
Each one is presented as a separate encoded person, yet with a wider screen, I suggest this family is en group, a collection of types in one singular fractured psyche. The family is an individual viewed through our kaleidoscope of our own split psyches.
Now this as it is could have been left as a comedic melodrama with the characters bouncing off each other, conflict, laughs etc. This in my opinion would have some value as cinematic drama. However there comes into the picture, a character, not in any way human, an insentient being, a Campervan. The pivotal role, the Deus in Machina arrives. Here we find the risky-fun archetype of the Trickster. So begins the fools’ journey of this saga, 5 people in a van.
They are on their way across the country to Rondo Beach California, the land of hopes and dreams.
The Road Movie. Part 2
The assembled family must now travel over 800 miles (about 1280 km) in a claustrophobic camper van, here the interplay between the family members starts in earnest. Grandpa is the crusty fly in the ointment, part joker clown (he obviously sees something redemptive in his relationship with Olive, allowing him to express his caring side), part shadow judge. Freed by age by social restrictions he talks loudly about the pleasure-seeking life he now enjoys. (Grandpa doesn’t care what you think, this is his life), the Teenage son sits monk-like in his determined silence, will power is his mojo, he still has an active presence though. Mom and Dad bicker as per normal, and the mis-fitted brother fills in his backstory. All have been thwarted by life circumstance. There is no escape from Plan A, just keep doing the same things until one day it works out. This journey ordeal is an escape, a flight from the mundane.
This still looks the same, the household factions have been simply made mobile, in the rather featureless desert landscape of New Mexico.
Then the camper van breaks. This hiccup moves the trickster element of the story centre stage. To continue the journey, the family must pull (actually push) together, and here, cohesion, the mutual understanding of the task occurs.
From a Jungian perspective this begins to shape up as the integration of the whole instead of being riven by competing demands, we can integrate our discordant unconscious desires into a better tune, the bigger (meaningful) task in front of us means we can stop a life of reactions to one where we can begin to respond in a more genuine fashion.
In terms of the unfolding alchemical transformation, the first 2 stages of the process, Nigredo and Albedo have happened before our eyes.
For the alchemical fusion of the parts, 2 catalytic moments need to occur. The first is the simple action of the misbehaving campervan. It needs everyone to work together to make it start. The horn is also malfunctioning. This is the first trickster esque movement towards the disparate family archetypes beginning to fuse in an unexpected way.
Next, we have the death of the grandpa. The emperor is dead (he has played a good part, wise in moments, integrated with the shadow male in others. He is no more, leaving space for the king (without power) to assume the vacant crown. Here the father (Richard) seizes his chance to take on the unfeeling world.
In convincing the family to share in this one moment of disobedience (there is an ideal mission at stake) the die is cast. Whatever happens this journey must proceed to the bitter (sweet) end.
Jean Paul Sartre wrote that at the moment of decision, we become truly human, here the Just king archetype (a positive male animus) becomes realised. The will of the emperor must be carried out as an act of loyalty. From this, simple moment of transgression the whitening (Citrinitas) of the base psychic objects moves towards its incandescent compelling glow.
The journey of misadventure now continues. However, as an aside there will be a moment of crisis, that will act as a cathartic point, the moment that the silent warrior/monk, faced with a new realisation falls into a fugue.
This scene (I hate you all!) provides the explosion, the revealing of a part of the shadow self, this is crisis. Cinematically pleasing located in the middle of nowhere, the danger of a catastrophic split comes about. This has a resolution, seemingly no one else can stop the impasse, until Olive (the Puella Aeternis) comes to his aid. With a hug the crisis becomes resolved.
Now the action of Citrinitas, takes the narrative lead. This journey has an improved destination. (which as I have suggested can be seen as the family group comes together, or the damaged individual psyche becomes integrated and repaired enough)
The Carnival of the Grotesque
Sigmund Freud suggested that Psychoanalysis is one of the impossible professions. Like Teaching and medicine, once the therapeutic task is complete, we the practitioner will never know what happened next. This notion will live with us, sometimes with a short resolution, when years later happenstance (or Synchronicity) causes a short re acquaintance with the pupil, patient, or client. In my experience this is mostly uncommon
Here as the mute audience (is a film without an audience still a film?) the has acted as a psychoanalytic accomplice to the ongoing character journey.
We have become complicit involved on an unconscious level with the unfolding transformation. Self-guided, what had appeared discordant has now arrived at a new, more resonant, tune.
Fortunately, as is the lexicon of the movies, we are presented with the outcome, what happens when the family re encounters the outside world?
The end point draws together the various threads, sub plots and new integration to an (in retrospect) inevitable outcome.
Finally, the campervan reaches its destination. The ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ pageant. Every aspect of this pageant is now amplified to the grotesque maximum. The organisers, neurotic and pushy, the compere, an oily entertainer, the hyper glamorised young girls, even the judges appear fake people. No offence though to the real Ms California who floats serenely above all the madness, smiling and oblivious to the by now in joke.
Olive is still the eternal child, sexless, androgynous almost, set afloat in the world of the devouring anima, (or self-imposed male gaze). This is not going to end well.
The family split up; the pageant is about to begin. Mom does Mom stuff, Dad begins to investigate what’s actually going on, Dwayne, now talking and Frank move to the outside, this is not a place they want to be in, and Olive. She’s in her Zone. It’s time for her to enact her Grandpa’s last gift to the world.
Dwayne and Frank have for the first time a meaningful tete a tete. An existential moment of facing up the world, newly awakened they combine as adults with some agency in the world. Not reacting they have now learnt to respond to the plastic world around them.
Here Dwayne the warrior /monk reveals his wisdom after his self-imposed silence. I quote “You know what. Fuck beauty contests. Life is one fucking beauty contest after another. You know school, then college, then work, fuck that. ….…You do what you love and fuck the rest”
On returning to the grotesque carnival, the family try to rescue Olive, they no longer belong here and fear that the unspoilt child will be harmed by the mockery of others.
Olive though wants to perform, protected by her innocence and wanting a chance to shine she persists and moves to her stage.
I suggest that here we see the newly integrated psyche( family group) acting in unison to protect their own lost innocence, perhaps they now all realised that they have been unconsciously participating in a ‘fucking beauty contest’ and for what?
This finale I admit is actually what grabbed my attention, for reasons perhaps to do with my own unconscious process, having committed 85 mins to watching ‘just another movie’ I found myself laughing out loud. Still even if I watch it again, it catches me out, I laugh until tears stream down my face. I find the emotional satisfaction of having witnessed a minor miracle, a real connection with the screen. It was this reaction that lead me to ask why this film? What was here; what was really here?
As I have said, it is rare in Psychoanalytic circles to ever see the outcome of our work together. As a rule of thumb, when I feel better about a client, the client is also at their resolution. The work is done. The Journey is finished and now begins the task of parting on good terms.
However, in movie land we get to witness the outcome. Olive is now performing her dance, not just any dance (it is important that she wears a head band to keep the balance between the eternal child and pseudo-sexuality, unrealised yet, still lurking in the pageant carnival like an unwelcome guest.
The music, chosen by Grandpa is ’Superfreak’ (Rick James), the dance moves are stripper/pole dancer tease and provocation. The audience boos and starts to leave. Confronted by the sexualised underbelly of the pageant, the willing accomplice parents are outraged.
This is it. Firstly, the family stand up and clap, the coming together of the family solidarity stands up in the middle of this outrage. The oily compere tries to stop the performance by grabbing Olive. Her father, Richard (the new King) rushes onstage to protect her, Dwayne and Frank join the fray, finally mom steps up. The family circle is completed
The unalloyed freedom of the spontaneous gesture, the group dance reenergises the moment. At this instance some sort of unfashioned harmony is restored. The family has become integrated and whole. This was the purpose of the journey, to rebuild from the bottom to something new and beautiful. No longer performing for the imagined other or pursuing an ideal path, they (and us) have become true to themselves. Human beings are messy and incredible, often at the same time.
We end as we began, 5 people in a van driving home, happy this time. The trickster van still beeping.
I hope in writing this that I have not tried to fit square pegs into round holes, I don’t know if Michal Arndt deliberately wrote these tropes into his first screenplay or whether it is a happy accident.
All I know is that as Therapist I recognise the stages and the outcomes (rarely does happenstance create such confluences). I have attempted to demonstrate here the impact of the Jungian tradition in our own narratives. I see this family group as 5 individuals and also 1 psyche. The audience are the stand in mute observer of events, the silent analyst in the room.
I leave this for you to make your own minds up, though in true therapy style I will say this. When someone says that you or they cannot change, the die is cast etc, they have never been more wrong or ignorant of our own potentials (and their own)
Peace and good fortune be with you