Little Miss Sunshine is about a family who goes on a road trip across the country to bring seven-year-old Olive to compete in a beauty pageant. Included in the group are two characters, Frank and Dwayne, who show signs of social anxiety, though in different ways and for different reasons.
Little Miss Sunshine 
- Directed by: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
- Written by: Michael Arndt
- Starring: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Greg Kinnear, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, Alan Arkin
- Screenplay: pdf
Psychoanalysis: (Warning: Full Spoilers Ahead!)
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Richard (Greg Kinnear) plays a wannabe self-help guru like Tony Robbins. A lot of so-called gurus sell $1,000 programs like Richard’s that claim to cure social anxiety. These programs may or may not help, but ultimately, there is no secret cure or quick fix for social anxiety. The way to overcome it is actually quite simple: change the way you think, and do the things you fear. It’s simple in concept, but difficult in practice. I used to think Tony Robbins was a snake-oil salesman type, but after listening to “Awaken the Giant Within” and some of his other stuff, I realized Robbins is actually genuine in trying to help people and has some good advice, even for social anxiety. Richard’s program, however; is like a skewed version of Tony Robbins’. We shouldn’t think of ourselves as “losers” if we fail to act because of social anxiety. It’s a difficult condition to overcome, so we need compassion for ourselves—and patience. But Richard is not entirely wrong. We do have the power within ourselves to change and overcome our social anxiety.
Frank (Steve Carell) goes to live with his sister’s family after failed suicide attempt…
You want to talk? Or no?
Frank is despondent, though it’s unclear if he’s always been this shy, or if he doesn’t want to talk because of his current state of depression. Social anxiety and depression can often go hand in hand. Social anxiety can lead to depression, and depression can cause social anxiety. If you are in a deep state of depression like Frank, you probably won’t feel like talking. Vice versa, if you have severe social anxiety that is holding you back in life, it may make you feel depressed. We learn some details about Frank’s backstory, but we don’t know enough about how he was before the suicide attempt to determine the extent of his social anxiety.
Frank shares a room with Dwayne (Paul Dano), a high school student…
You’ll get along fine. He’s really quiet.
What? You don’t talk anymore?
Dwayne shakes his head.
Dwayne rolls his eyes and half-shrugs.
You can talk. You just choose not to?
Dwayne points to a poster of Nietzsche.
You don’t speak because of Friedrich Nietzsche? Far out.
Dwayne may appear to have social anxiety because he never speaks, but he is choosing not to speak. Social anxiety is not a choice, however. Fear and anxiety make us unable to speak.
Got a girlfriend?
Dwayne shakes his head.
Dwayne gives Frank a look.
Kidding. Kidding. I know. So who do you hang out with?
Dwayne shakes his head.
No one? There must be someone…
Dwayne shakes his head.
You don’t hang out with anyone? Oh come on. You must have one friend!
Dwayne writes: “I hate everyone.”
Everyone? What about your family?
Dwayne underlines everyone.
Dwayne reveals that he has no friends, but again, it appears to be a choice. He is more anti-social than socially anxious. He is into Nietzsche and philosophy and can’t stand the people around him who are into more trivial matters. Throughout the film, Dwayne looks bored when he’s with his family, as if he doesn’t want to be there. I can relate to feeling different from people whom I share no interests with, and not understanding them, and not being happy if I’m forced to spend time with them, but that doesn’t make me hate them. Then again, Dwayne is in high school, so it might just be a dramatic form of teenage angst.
So, Sheryl… I couldn’t help notice Dwayne has stopped speaking.
Oh! I’m sorry. Dwayne’s taken a vow of silence.
You’ve taken a vow of silence?!
He’s gonna join the Naval Academy and become a fighter pilot. He’s taken a vow of silence until he reaches that goal.
Sheryl reveals the reason Dwayne is not speaking. He has a noble motive for doing so. Then again, his antisocial attitude may have factored into why he chose to take a vow of silence in order to meet his goal.
Sheryl asks Dwayne if he’ll go with them to the Little Miss Sunshine Competition.
“This is unfair. All I ask is that you leave me alone.”
Dwayne may want to be left alone because he’s antisocial. But other reasons for wanting to be left alone are social anxiety and introversion. Someone with social anxiety may ask to be left alone, even if they like people, to avoid the fear and discomfort that comes from being with them. And introverts may not have social anxiety, but social interactions are physically draining, so they need time alone to recharge.
Dwayne agrees to go on the trip, but when he discovers he’s colorblind and therefore unable to become an Air Force pilot, he freaks out, breaking his vow of silence.
You’re not my family! I don’t want to be your family! I hate you fucking people! I hate you! Divorce! Bankrupt! Suicide! You’re losers! You’re fucking losers!
Dwayne has an angry outburst full of antisocial thoughts. Those aren’t the types of thoughts people with social anxiety have, which tend to be more fear and judgment based than hate and anger based.
After his outburst, Dwayne wants to be left alone in the desert on the side of the road. Olive walks over and simply puts her arm on his shoulder and sits with him in silence. Dwayne then walks back to the car with her.
I apologize for the things I said. I was upset. I didn’t really mean them.
Dwayne gives a genuinely heartfelt apology, indicating that he isn’t as antisocial as he may claim to be. It’s clear from his interactions with his little sister Olive that he loves her. The antisocial attitude that he conveyed may have come from his own feelings of loneliness and rejection. He may have felt so different from his family and the other kids at school that it made him feel alienated and alone. In some people, that can cause depression, and in others it can cause anger, which seems to be the case for Dwayne. I think everyone just wants to be loved and accepted for who they are, and that’s what Olive does for Dwayne.
Frank…? What’d it feel like when you cut your wrists?
You know, I wish I could tell you I felt bad. But I didn’t. I was… Outside the world, y’know? It was very peaceful… But, I’m feeling that way now, too, so…
Sometimes I wish I could just go to sleep until I was eighteen. Just skip all this crap — high school and everything. Just skip it…
Y’ever hear of Marcel Proust?
He’s the guy you teach?
Yeah. 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 was also probably the greatest writer since Shakespeare. Anyway, he gets down to the end of his life, he looks back and he decides that all the years he suffered — those were the best years of his life. Because they made him who he was. They forced him to think and grow, and to feel very deeply. And the years he was happy? Total waste. Didn’t learn anything. So, if you sleep til you’re eighteen… Think of the suffering you’d miss! High school’s your prime suffering years. You don’t get better suffering than that!
Great words of wisdom by Frank (via Proust and screenwriter Michael Arndt). Whatever depression or anxiety you feel at any given time, no matter how overwhelming it may seem, it will eventually pass.
You know what…? Fuck beauty contests. It’s like life is one fucking beauty contest after another these days. School, then college, then work. Fuck it. Fuck the Naval Academy. Fuck the MacArthur Foundation. If I want to fly, I’ll find a way to fly. You do what you love and fuck the rest.
Part of social anxiety comes from us thinking of life like it’s a beauty contest. We give too much significance to each social interaction we face, causing us to get overly nervous before it and overanalyze our mistakes after. But as Dwayne says, “Fuck it.” No social situation is that important. We just need to relax and be ourselves.
I’m glad you’re talking again, Dwayne. You’re not nearly as stupid as you look.
Dwayne opens up towards the end of the film and is a little more social. Frank said that line as a joke, but it’s true that quiet people can sometimes be mistakenly assumed to be stupid. Others fail to realize the deep thoughts going on inside an introvert’s mind.
The characters of Frank and Dwayne both show signs of social anxiety, but each has deeper issues at the root of those symptoms. Frank is deeply depressed, and Dwayne has antisocial anger issues. Little Miss Sunshine may not be the greatest example of social anxiety in a film, but it is nonetheless a great film.