While crix and auds have “Little Miss Sunshine” as a lighthearted road comedy, it’s intriguing to speculate how moviegoers might see the film in 20 or 30 years’ time. Will its story of a near-bankrupt family be viewed as emblematic of America’s rapidly disappearing middle class in the early 21st century?
If so, that economic take is purely intentional on the part of its first-time screenwriter, Michael Arndt.
“It’s about a family of limited means, which you don’t see in American movies every day,” he says. “You never see people talk about money in movies. There are great wardrobes and great apartments. One of the reason people are able to relate to the family in ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ is that there’s that sense of financial anxiety. It speaks to the current moment — this sense of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, and the middle class is torn between these diverging poles.”
Arndt, however, resists turning “Sunshine” into “The Grapes of Wrath” of the new millennium. Yes, both the Joads and the Hoovers set out for California only to encounter financial hardships, hollow dreams, car troubles and a dead grandparent onboard. “Within the genre of road movies, there are a number of set pieces,” he confesses.
But come on? What about that name Hoover, as in the Depression’s President Herbert Hoover?
“For five years, they were the Harveys,” Arndt says of the family in his long-gestating script. Then, two weeks before filming, there emerged rights-clearance problems. “I probably made a list of 30 alternate names; they were able to clear Hoover,” the scribe reveals. “Because it’s a story of economic insecurity, people are able to make connections that are beyond the imagination of the pea-brain writer.”
Although Arndt saw John Ford’s 1940 classic in high school, Arndt credits as much more direct influences Greg Mottola’s “The Daytrippers” (1996) and Isao Takahata’s animated “My Neighbors the Yamadas” (1999), which taught him that “you could make a full, satisfying story about any family.”
Despite the serious economic underpinnings of “Sunshine,” Arndt says the script “couldn’t be more of an ordinary, straight-ahead, linear narrative,” because, as a first-timer screenwriter “I was trying to write as low-budget a script as I could.”
Nothing wrong there. “Ozu and Fellini started writing light comedies and then made the transition to more serious films,” he points out. “My next couple of films will be straight-ahead comedies.”
But then watch out: “I have an idea for a sci-fi film that would be like ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’ set 500 years in the future as directed by Wong Kar Wai. There will be time-jumps and fragment scenes and hopefully a formally innovative film that would be a lot about memory.”