An unremarkable little girl called Olive harbours an ambition to win the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in California. For a variety of reasons, she ends up making the journey there with her dysfunctional family that includes a grandfather with a drug habit, a brother who refuses to talk, a suicidal uncle, a would-be self-help guru of a father and a mother who, in spite of the familial turmoil that surrounds her, believes emphatically in her daughter’s ambitions. This twist on the road movie genre was initially released to mixed critical response but went on to attract a sizeable worldwide audience upon its release in 2006 and secure a couple of Oscars.
Little Miss Sunshine was rated by the BBFC in June 2006.The classification issues noted by examiners included:
• some thirty uses of strong language (some used sexually)
• clear sight of hard drug use
• some moderate comic sex references
• some sexualised behaviour
Whilst the frequent use of strong language immediately signified a minimal 15 rating, (BBFC Guidelines state that there may be ‘frequent use of strong language’ at 15, whilst at 12A/12 only ‘infrequent use’ can be expected), examiners had to consider carefully the portrayal of drug use and references within the film.
An early sequence shows Olive’s eccentric and dishevelled grandfather depositing white powder from a vial into lines which he’s then clearly seen to snort. The sequence is free of any obvious glamorisation, (the grandfather’s character is very quickly established as being eccentric and jaded), and a later scene in which it’s suggested that he repeats the process before retiring to bed is the last we see of him (he fails to wake up). Both scenes carry a comic frisson. Grandpa also makes the comment, ‘I started smoking heroin…everyone old should do it!’ although, again, this is comically framed. On this evidence and taking into account the unlikely scenario of anyone, least of all mid-teen audience members, identifying with Grandpa, examiners felt entirely confident that the drug issue could be readily contained by the 15 Guidelines. These state that ‘Drug taking may be shown but the film as a whole must not promote or encourage drug use’.
It is generally accepted that scenes of hard drug usage as seen in Little Miss Sunshine are unlikely to be seen as part of any work classified below 15.
Some of the comic sex references in the film are delivered with strong language, an example including Grandpa’s advice to his teenage grandson ‘F**k a lot of women, Dwayne, are you getting any? The young stuff, that's the best bit. You're jail bait, they're jail bait.’ In addition, there are later references to pornographic magazines (‘Fag Rag’, ‘Buns and Ammo’, ‘Cocked and Loaded’) with some brief glimpses of their scantily-clad cover stars (but no significant nudity). In general, such references sit comfortably at 15 (BBFC Guidelines at 15 allow for ‘strong verbal references to sexual behaviour’). Examples of recent films where more frequent moderate and strong comic sex referencing similar to that found in Little Miss Sunshine has helped secure their 15 rating include Knocked Up and Superbad.
Examiners were keen to discuss one of the crucial closing scenes of the film in which Olive finally gets to perform at the beauty pageant. She ends up doing a routine that both she and grandpa had been working on for months which has her delivering a clumsy take on standard stripper moves to the tune of Rick James’s sexually charged hit ‘Superfreak’. Chaos ensues as the horrified organizers of the contest try to wrestle Olive and her family out of the room. BBFC examiners do have to be mindful of the treatment of young performers in works submitted to them, but there was no suggestion here that the young actress playing Olive was being overtly sexualised – and certainly no more than the other painfully precocious young female entrants seen performing prior to her big moment. The scene was felt to be well within the limits of the law (Protection of Children Act, 1978) and current BBFC 15 Guidelines.
Examiners decided on ‘Contains strong language and drug use’ for the film’s accompanying BBFCinsight.
The film was passed at 15 for its DVD release in 2007. It was also picked to feature as one of the BBFC Masterclass events for National Schools Film Week 2007.