Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Gestalt of Olive and Richard (Psychoanalysis and Little Miss Sunshine)

Heeeey, for once I went and saw an actual movie, instead of just surfing trailers. It was a slick flick called Little Miss Sunshine. I immensely enjoyed it. So did every other reviewer, apparently, and I'm glad they agree with me.

There are a ton of themes underlying the narrative of Little Miss Sunshine. Off the top of my head: the effects of modern complications (drugs, profiteering, homosexuality) on traditional family structure; the embodiment of parental authority in children, including those who are trying to actively reject this parental influence; the power of innocence to subvert cynicism and authority... seriously, this film was emotionally complex, and there were a lot of themes at play. I'm going to focus on what I see as the primary one.

Certain theorists have pointed out a transition in psychology that happens to children when they develop full command of language. That transition is from a lower to a higher order of thought, from something called the Imaginary order to something called the Symbolic order. Give me a sec, and I'll try to explain the difference.

In the Imaginary order, the child is preoccupied with its own self-image, and it defines itself as a whole, opposed to everything else outside it. This causes identification with the mother (i.e. "I am...") and opposition to the father (i.e. "I am not..."). It's a black-and-white universe, self and not-self, where the child is concerned with protecting and asserting his own identity and opposing it to other identities.

That's the Imaginary order: me and not-me. The transition I spoke of happens when the child fully integrates into the Symbolic order, the mode of interaction where everything is mediated through language. Suddenly, there's more than just a "me" and an "everything else". The child realizes that there are other subjects, other interests to balance against its own, and a whole complicated network of personalities and interactions that it has to account for.

Want an illustration? Go see Little Miss Sunshine. At the beginning of the movie, Richard's perspective is: "I need to assert myself as a winner. A winner is what I am. A loser is what I'm not, and what I should not be." Though we don't fully realize it, this perspective has infected his children, as well... Olive is stressed out about the possibility of losing in the childrens' beauty pageant, and Dwayne is so obsessed with his goal of becoming a fighter pilot that he's systematically renouncing all the important teenage experiences in the interim. Frank is a by-product of competition, as well, and by defining himself within a dichotomy of rivalry, success, and faliure, he's already faced his Imaginary breakdown (his castration, in psychoanalytical terms).

So, looked at in a certain light, this movie is about a family's transition from the Imaginary order to the Symbolic order. The artifice of competition, centered around "winning" and asserting oneself, is gradually penetrated by the more complex factors at work in the real world. Winner versus loser is broken up, first by Grandpa, who tells Olive that the only losers are people who are too afraid to compete in the first place. Other factors get in the way of the competition dynamic, as well... Dwayne's personal tragedy is that his efforts are thwarted by factors that are genuinely beyond his control (I hope this wasn't a spoiler), and Richard learns that some goals (getting your kid into a beauty pageant) require you to give up your pride and prostrate yourself in front of an administrator with big hair.

And the climax? I won't spoil it, but suffice it to say that in the end, the competition dichotomy... us versus them, winner versus loser... is broken down entirely by the forces of family and community. In the end, certain members of the family (Dwayne and Richard in particular) have to give up their simplistic ideas of success in favor of a broader paradigm that accounts for family and mental health.

Despite Little Miss Sunshine's indie-film humility and its tongue-in-cheek irony, it's a film that wrestles with one of the toughest issues in contemporary culture. In a profoundly competitive culture, we're coaxed into defining ourselves by the competitions we participate in, and we find ourselves alienated by compulsory standards of success and failure. But as Olive, Dwayne, and Richard himself ultimately discover, it's not our win-loss record that defines us... it's the network of our relationships with the people who are an inevitable part of our lives.

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