Scenes are the dramatic units of films — the building blocks of cinematic storytelling. It is said that scenes should have a beginning, middle, and end. Additionally, all scenes should also have a goal, move the story forward, and present an emotional shift for at least one of the characters.
On a tightly constructed film, no scene is wasted! Whereas first-time writers focus on twists and big events, connecting the dots between “exciting moments” to fill in the pages, a skilled writer knows that every scene must be infused with purpose and exciting in its own right.
Analyzing film scenes is an amazing process to learning the craft of screenwriting. In this new series, Anatomy of a Scene, we read or watch a scene from a movie and deconstruct it, asking ourselves what the writer intended to do. Does it work? Why or why not? And of course, what makes the scene great? Or awful?
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE
Spoilers level: high.
Today, we’re taking a closer look at 6 six pages that constitute one of the many unforgettable moments from LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006) written by Michael Arndt. The scene starts off in the second half of page 70:
The scene begins with Olive testing her brother’s vision. Quickly, the writer misdirects us with Olive’s line, “20/20 vision!” Even before the conflict kicks in, the scene works because it is endearing to see the two siblings bonding. And if you recall from the movie, just a few scenes prior the whole family was mourning Grandpa’s death. After that, they ran into trouble with a state trooper and a hyperactive car horn. Therefore, this moment of diversion lets the audience breathe… before the next gut-punch. (Peaks and valleys of tension.)
On the first half of page 71, we move away from Olive and Dwayne to remind the audience that they are on a time crunch. As Frank announces the time, “Sharyl looks at Richard, who steps on the gas.” Richard’s line “We’ll make it, okay? Maybe a few minutes late” is immediately shot down by Sheryl’s “No, Richard…! They said three o’clock sharp! They were very explicit.” This brief exchange is important because…
Oliver tests Dwayne for colorblindness. And here’s when the scene’s conflict explodes. Since the beginning of the film, the audience has known that Dwayne wants to fly jets for the navy. It’s his dream, which he carries as an obsession. It’s the reason why he doesn’t speak (a vow of silence shows unwavering discipline). So when he learns that he’s colorblind, he’s entire life purpose disappears before his eyes (pun intended). And the author skillfully spells that out within the scene, gradually building to his breakdown:
Top of page 72: In Dwayne’s confusion (perhaps denial) he scribbles “What?” on his pad. Frank, dreading to be the messenger here, says nothing until “Dwayne points violently at the pad.” Frank explains the first time. Dwayne points at the pad again, and Frank delivers the bomb: “You can’t fly jets in the Navy if you’re colorblind”.
The next line of action reads: “Dwayne does nothing. Then he seems to implode in on himself, curling up in a ball.”
The scene escalates, amidst shouts and confusion, taking us to the side of the interstate where Richard pulls over (top of page 73). Dwayne barrels down the slope and finally, we hear his voice, his first word in the movie: “Fuck!”
It’s a great word that summarizes how Dwayne feels and the situation. Remember, they are on a tight schedule. A soul-crushed son/brother on the side of the highway is the last thing anyone needs. Then, to make matters worse, he sits down and announces, “I’m not going.” Sheryl does what she can to convince him, but then, he speaks his mind (middle of page 74), calling out their failures: “Divorce! Bankrupt! Suicide!” It’s a great piece of dialogue that synthesizes how dysfunctional they all are. Clearly, Dwayne has always harbored contempt towards his family (one of the reasons he’s chosen not to talk to them) due to the failed state of their lives. And now, Dwayne has joined them!
As the family tries to come up with a solution to their dilemma, including leaving someone behind with Dwayne, it’s Olive who changes his mind by silently sitting next to him and putting an arm around him. It’s a beautiful, silent gesture that persuades Dwayne, and a sweet reminder to us writers that some moments work without dialogue.
Before we end the scene in the middle of page 75, Dwayne does a bit of house cleaning by apologizing for the things he’s said. This closure is important, otherwise, the audience may wish a follow-up scene where the family addresses his behavior. But this is neat. Dwayne apologizes and we move on, never to discuss this again!
Here’s a portion of the scene itself for your viewing pleasure:
Crushing a character’s dream is a mean thing, but it can be dramatic gold. It works here because the theme of success vs. failure is a big part of the movie; all the characters in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE have lofty goals (except maybe Sheryl). Dwayne, a typical teen, despises his family (sorry parents, it’s the truth!), so pulling the rug from under him is a quick way to convince him that he’s not any better. Moreover, within the larger story, Dwayne’s breakdown makes the stakes higher for Olive — she’s the family’s last hope for greatness.