Little Miss Sunshine (2006) — Directionality


Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Ruby Sparks). Written by Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3). Starring Greg Kinnear (Sabrina; You’ve Got Mail; Invincible; Green Zone; Modern Family; Rake), Steve Carell (The Office; The Way Way Back; Evan Almighty; Date Night; Crazy, Stupid, Love), Toni Collette (About a Boy; The Sixth Sense), Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood; Prisoners; Looper; 12 Years a Slave), Abigail Breslin (My Sister’s Keeper; August: Osage County; Ender’s Game), and Alan Arkin (Argo; Glengarry Glen Ross; The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming; The Heart is a Lonely Hunter).

With every shot involving motion (and even in still shots when objects/characters are facing towards/away from things), a director must choose how to frame directionality. In David Lean’s epic 1962 masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, he deliberately shoots almost all movement from left to right in the frame to emphasize that the film is centered around a journey.

George Lucas, who was immensely inspired by Lawrence of Arabia while creating the Star Wars films, uses directionality often. At the end of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, for example, when fighters attack the Separatist army, they move on screen from right to left, deliberately placed to represent opposition.

Little Miss Sunshine, whether the filmmakers (Dayton and Faris) were consciously aware of this or not, used Lean’s technique to depict the family’s journey. This makes sense, because the film is centered around both a literal journey (to Olive’s pageant) and a figurative journey (the family coming together). Almost all driving shots go from left to right, including car interiors (the 180º rule axis is positioned such that actors are often facing right). See the gallery below:

One exception to this visual strategy is when the family is pulled over by a cop. The car is framed going right-to-left:

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Perhaps Dayton and Faris wished to visually punctuate this moment as an obstacle to the family’s forward movement towards their goal. However, it could have been shot right-to-left because of the background (more aesthetically interesting than the reverse left-to-right shot’s background). At another trying moment, when Paul Dano’s character learns that he is color blind (most likely ruining his dream to attend the US Air Force Academy), the car is still shown going left-to-right.

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Perhaps this supports the hypothesis that the police-pull-over shot is an isolated incident of right-to-left for background aesthetics reasons, or perhaps this Paul Dano obstacle is shot left-to-right to show that, at that point in the film, nothing is stopping the family from moving forward — in other words, depicting resilience that has been built up throughout the film (according to this supposition, the earlier cop scene shows a moment when the family hasn’t yet solidified its resilience and is in danger of falling apart, although I find this interpretation shaky at best).

A few more touches — in one early scene, when the family is eating in a diner, cars pass by the window outside from left-to-right:


During a sequence in which the family is rushing to get Olive into pageant registration on time, all shots — driving and running — are shot from left-to-right:

Finally, did Breaking Bad cast directly out of Little Miss Sunshine? Both Bryan Cranston (Walt in BB) and Dean Norris (Hank in BB) appear in small roles, Bryan Cranston as Richard’s more successful colleague:

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And Dean Norris as a highway cop:

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