The movie is about a family failing to achieve the American Dream. The article, Mapping Contemporary Cinema says, the movie is “depicting a white middle-class nuclear family as a crucible of miscommunication and emotional dysfunction for the purpose of critiquing conservative values”. Viewers recognize what this movie is all about from the very beginning scene, showing Olive, a chubby 8 year old admiring and imitating the beauty queen on the TV screen. The very next scene, shows her father giving a lecture on motivation, talking about how in this world there are only winners and losers, an American capitalistic ideal. The camera zooms away, and you see that the father is only lecturing to a very small crowd of people. Quickly viewers realize, that both these characters are trying to achieve different aspects of the American dream, Olive by wanting to look like a beauty queen, and her father trying to become successful financially. This labels the family as a “loser” or failure.
Then the son says, “Life is one fucking beauty contest after another … Do what you love, and fuck the rest!” At this point, the director is attempting to tell viewers, that this mythological American dream, is just that, a dream, often impossible to obtain. However, the director wants you to take away, that just because you do not achieve, does not mean that you cannot be happy. Olive goes on to perform a very scandalous performance at the pageant, not really caring about how she looks, or what others think about her. Viewers realize this when Olive is hesitant to perform while backstage, and her mother tells her to just be herself, forget what the “ideal” definition of beauty is, and to just be yourself. The father’s 9 step program fails to gain popularity, he is saddened when his promoter finally tells him this, but he still does not lose hope. The end of the movie is not your stereotypical ending, the entire family fails to achieve their individual goals. However, through their experiences travelling to Olive’s pageant together, the family realizes that they actually do not need to achieve these idealistic goals to be happy. Compare the beginning dinner scene to the end, you can truly tell that although they failed to obtain the American dream, they are still happy because they have each other, and that is the significance of the quote from the son.
Analyzing the pageant further, like Zizek; while Olive’s performance was very scandalous, to the beauty pageant judges, I actually found it to be a lot less sexual and objectifying to women, than what the other contestants did. Olive was fully clothed, and had no make-up on, while the others wore very revealing costumes with a lot of make-up on, which no 8 year old girl should be doing. As the article, Gender and Contemporary Film states, the culture around beauty pageants is so distorted, that the people associated with the pageant believe that wearing revealing clothes and a lot of make-up is actually ok, and not objectifying females. I believe that the director wanted to show, how messed up society’s view on the culture of beauty pageants is.
The movie was positioned as a “smart cinema”, as the article Mapping Contemporary Cinema states. Throughout the movie, there are tragicomedy segments. For example, during the dinner scene, Steve Carell, who was just released from the hospital after attempting to commit suicide, is eating and Olive asks him why he tried to kill himself. The subject matter of suicide is a very serious one, yet the director chooses to present this in a humorous way, I’ll admit that even I found myself laughing at this scene, when I knew I should not be. Tragicomedy is used, to show viewers what this movie is really all about. Most movies you see the stereotypical “ideal” nuclear family, and in this movie, the family is far from the “ideal” family that society depicts. The article states this as well, “What the movie’s about is that even though not every family’s perfect, even the imperfect family can still love each other just as much”. The director is presenting the dark imperfections of the family, but doing so in a humorous way to show that, while that family has their issues, this is normal, and that they can still be a happy family.