Psychiatry at the Movies with Dr. Chris Wilkes - "Little Miss Sunshine"

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Presenting Author(s): Dr. Chris Wilkes

Date and time: 19 Mar 2020 from 20:00 to 21:30

Location: Wildrose Salon C  Floor Map

Learning Objectives:

  1. A movie will be reviewed that outlines key developmental principles of empathy and validation for healthy family functioning.
  2. Developmental tensions that arise from all or nothing thinking will be amplified.
  3. The parallel with the fatal flaw and the role of the tragic hero in individuation will be described.


This movie, a comedic tragedy,  features 6 members of the Hoover family as they embark on a 800 mile road trip from Albuquerque to California to get Olive a 7yrs old girl to an American beauty pageant and puts the fun back into dysfunctional. But it is also a serious look into multi-generational family dynamics we see acted out over meals and in the confined space of the VW bus. In this frame we encounter such issues of suicide, addiction, unrequited love and ambition and the inevitable trials and tribulations we go through as we pursue our goals. This movie holds up a mirror to our culture, which is obsessed with winners and losers and its pursuit of success, power and approbation. Currently our culture, the families and individuals we see suffer from deracination and mythic dissociation. We are cut off from our roots so we follow the powerful attraction of the ideologies of the day. Materialism, hedonism and narcissism but this movie illustrates the redemptive power of human attachment to facilitate transformation and healing.


Movie's and drama like dreams have the capacity to transform and channel primitive Psychic energy. Movies have a way of capturing real life challenges in fictional dramatic circumstances. In fact C.G. Jung thought Art in general was a good way to integrate chaotic instincts and conflicts into the order of every day consciousness. Now archetypes in the movies are a particular form of pattern which persists amid variations from age to age, which corresponds to a pattern or configuration of emotional tendencies in minds of people, such as temporal versus the eternal, or loyalty to family versus individuation.

C.G. Jung says of archetypes that they resemble dry river beds to which water may return at any time.  CW 10, 189/395. While watching a movie or play, we the spectators become identified with the mythical happening being portrayed, allowing us to participate briefly in the archetypal reality.  So movies can promote a greater consciousness, providing the relevant connections with one’s personal life is made.

In fact PLATO discovered his concept of eternal ideas from contemplating the Greek Myths. For example… Moses is eternally bring down the law from Mount Sinai and Jesus is forever being crucified and resurrected. Similarly Hercules is eternally performing his labors.  Then we have Perseus continuing to confront the Medusa with his shield and Theseus forever stalks the Minotaur. Finally Demeter, the grieving mother, continues her frantic search for Persephone causing destruction and confusion.  So myths are always recurring everywhere about us and within us and especially in movies.


Tonight we will explore the 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine, screenplay by Michael Arndt featuring the Hoover family.  Set initially in Albuquerque the mum, Sheryl brings home her suicidal brother Frank to her dysfunctional family. Frank is homosexual and expert in Proust. Her husband Richard is unsuccessfully trying to sell his self-help book and self-improvement techniques using 9 steps to reach success.  Her teenage son Dwayne has taken a vow of silence as a follower of Nietzsche and aims to be a jet pilot. Dwayne’s grandfather was sent home from an institution for elders and is addicted to heroin.  When Sheryl’s daughter, who is Olive 7yrs of age has a chance to win “The Little Miss Sunshine Pageant” in California. The whole family travels together to get their daughter to a beauty pageant by taking an 800 mile cross country road trip in their VW bus.


This movie explores our culture and its dichotomous perceptions of being either a loser or a winner. This multi-generational family depicts 6 characters each in heroic solitary pursuit of some illusory victory. The family is emotionally and financially bankrupt like so many families that visit mental health services and the film deals with threats and death, the loss of someone you love and the loss of our ideals. We see multiple examples of the “fatal flaw” during the family’s Heroic journey west. The fatal tendency of over identification of the whole being with one’s interest, object, passion or habit of mind. In watching this comedic tragedy we see the classic Greek four step psychological process unfold with our characters. The “Agone”, or contest, the “pathos” which is the suffering hero after defeat. The “Threno”s or lamentation of the defeated hero and then finally the “Theophany” or rebirth of life at another level with a

Reversal of emotion from sorrow to joy.


After the movie we will have an opportunity to amplify the multiple themes that are raised in the story by the Hoover family and how we deal with these powerful forces of materialism, hedonism and narcissism in our Canadian culture. As well we will discuss the relevance of the characters depicted in the movie to our patient practice and our own Psyche. But also have time to consider what myth we serve from a cultural, psychological and pathological perspective.


  1. C.G JUNG Volume 10. Para 189 to 395.
  2. The Psyche on Stage, Edward Edinger. Inner City Books 2001. ISBN 0-91923-94-95.
  3. Movie Little Miss Sunshine. Drama Comedy. 2006. 1 hr. 41min. Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton. Screenplay Michael Arndt.

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