Miss Sunshine, Olive emerges as the epitome of robust and healthy psycho-social development within the family framework. However, the Hoover family is undergoing a series of stressors that put strains on individual relationships between members, as well as on the family structure as a whole. As White & Klein (2008) point out, all families have a life course and life cycle that are parallel to individual psycho-social development; these developmental stages within the family are "inevitable," (p. 126). Therefore, it becomes critical to look at the one-on-one dynamics as well as the collective macrocosmic elements in the family.
The Hoover family is white and middle class, placing them firmly within the dominant culture. Their family history reveals some facts that can illuminate the current life cycle issues. For example, Sheryl is in her second marriage. Reasons for the breakup of her first marriage are unknown, but she does have custody of the son. Dwayne is establishing his identity. As an adolescent, Dwayne's personal psychological development and psycho-social development are almost more important than his role within the family. His silence speaks volumes about why Dwayne is currently detached from the family structure, which tacitly supports him, as it understands the need for adolescent identity formation. The family depicted in Little Miss Sunshine is quirky, and has its own internal norms. Families do create internal norms, partly as a way to create family identity but also as a means of mitigating conflict between the family and external social norms (White & Klein, 2008). In Little Miss Sunshine, the normative culture of the beauty pageant becomes the formative symbol by which the Hoover family asserts its cohesive identity. Olive is far more concerned about the internal social norms governing the family, expressing deep respect for her grandfather even in his death. She is less concerned with the approval of the committee or of her peers, as she has a high sense of self-esteem.
Her uncle Frank, on the other hand, depends on the approval of others for his self-esteem. His dysfunctional relationships have caused him to become suicidal, but the family treats him with compassion. Scabini & Manzi (2011) point out that there is a confluence of social and psychological identity formation. The individual coping mechanisms cannot be viewed out of context. There are three main dynamics of family identity, all of which interact with individual identity formation. In Little Miss Sunshine, all three of these indent dynamics are evident. First, the family identity emerges at the group level. This is the "special identity" that makes the family all dance on stage together in support of Olive at the end of the move; it is also the "special identity" that causes the whole family to take the road trip together (Scabini & Manzi, 2011, p. 565). Second, the "couple subsystem level" is the unique one-on-one dynamics that emerge (Scabini & Manzi, 2011, p. 565). In Little Miss Sunshine, these one-on-one dynamics exist between Olive and her grandfather; between Sheryl and Frank; and between Richard and his father. Finally, the individual subsystem level is "the component of individual identity that comes from being part of a specific family group," (Scabini & Manzi, 2011, p. 565). The individual subsystem level is the level at which Frank contends with his own insecurities and dysfunctional relationship. His insecurities are also related to career identity. Frank's primary career identity as a scholar is called into question when his rival not only usurps him in the bedroom but also in his career; Frank's self-esteem has therefore been completely shattered as he rethinks his role and purpose.
Both the Olson Circumplex Model and the Beavers Systems Model offer frameworks for analyzing family systems, their multiple dimensions, and their functioning. The primary difference between the two systems is methodology. Although both are "cross-sectional, process-oriented, and capable of providing structure for family research," the Olson model suffers from "definitional problems and a total reliance on curvilinear dimensions with a grid approach to family typology that does not acknowledge a separation/individuation continuum," (Beavers & Voeller, 2004, p. 85). However, the Beavers & Voeller (2004) research suffers from inherent bias as it is conducted to bolster the Beavers model. The Beavers model does, however, have value in presenting reasons for Olive's optimal functioning. Adaptability has been linked to positive outcomes for girls in the Beavers model (Farrell & Barnes, 1993). Thus, the Beavers model can explain the differential outcomes for Olive vs. Frank in Little Miss Sunshine.
The Olson model emphasizes two core factors: cohesion and adaptability. Each is posited to be "curvilinearly related to positive psychological functioning of individual family members," (Farrell & Barnes, 1993, p. 119). Cohesion refers to the level of bonding plus level of autonomy of the individuals in the family; thus, overly cohesive families become enmeshed while undercohesive families become disengaged (Farrell & Barnes, 1993). With the Hoovers in Little Miss Sunshine, the family is clearly enmeshed to a degree; and yet their level of cohesion ends up being the optimal amount for the psychological and social functioning of the family as a whole and its individual members. They are enmeshed, but they bond together during times of need such as when the grandfather dies and they must work together to move the body. As they move the body, they are breaking social norms together. Their breaking the external social norms provides the means by which to establish a collective oppositional identity in relation to the outside world. Thus, breaking the laws of the outside world is a means of strengthening the family bond and enhancing its positive cohesion. Research has in fact shown that cohesion is "linearly" related to positive outcomes (Farrell & Barnes, 1993, p. 119).
Moreover, the positive outcomes exhibited by the Hoover family reveal the efficacy of social support theory -- which emphasizes the salvific function of mutual support in the relationship (Langford, Bowsher, Maloney & Lillis, 2008). Support is linked to health outcomes (Langford, et al., 2008). Because the grandfather was in a nursing home, he was not receiving the social support that he might have counted on and thus resorted to drug abuse. The family, understanding his need for support now, offers him a salvific structure to enjoy his last days. Their love is independent on how drug-addled those days are, and the grandfather participates well in the family rituals and creates a binary bond with Olive.
Social support can also enhance the family resiliency that is exemplified in Little Miss Sunshine. Black & Lobo (2008) define family resiliency as "the successful coping of family members under adversity that enables them to flourish with warmth, support, and cohesion," (p. 33). There are specific variables that are positively correlated with family resiliency in the literature, including the development of family rituals, flexibility, communication, shared recreation, support networks, and financial management. Each of these issues are pertinent to the way the Hoover family develops and maintains its resiliency in Little Miss Sunshine.
For example, the family develops rituals that define its cohesion and which sets it apart from other families. Traveling together in the Volkswagon bus promotes these daily rituals of life, and also engenders the sense of shared recreation. Ironically, communication in the family becomes a core theme because of Dwayne's outburst when he finally breaks his self-imposed vow of silence. The family bonds together during times of stress, each member supporting the other. Financial issues become apparent and are a source of stress, but the resiliency the Hoovers have developed allows the family to ride through the financial as well as the existential stress of losing the grandfather. Moreover, the family proves itself to not necessarily need to conform to the dominant culture norms and they remain a world apart from their peers.