Both dysfunctional and profoundly human, Little Miss Sunshine is packed with emotional gut-punches and unique lessons in storytelling. Screenwriter Michael Arndt creates complicated characters, sets high stakes, and dangles success in front of the protagonists up until the very end. So, writers, take note; the Little Miss Sunshine script is a true model of solid screenwriting and our analysis will clarify exactly why that is. 

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Little Miss Sunshine Script PDF Download

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Headshot Template Michael Arndt StudioBinder


Written by Michael Arndt

Michael Arndt is an NYU film school alum. While taking time off from his day job to write as many scripts as possible, Arndt completed seven, including the Little Miss Sunshine screenplay, in one year. The film was released in 2006, and the Little Miss Sunshine writer went on to write Toy Story 3, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens



Here is the story structure for the Little Miss Sunshine script:


An opening montage introduces us to the Harvey family (or Hoover family, as they are named in the film). We also become more acquainted with them at a family dinner, where we learn who they are and what they want, including but not limited to Olive wanting to be a beauty pageant queen. 

Inciting Incident

The Hoovers learn that the winner of a local pageant had to drop out of the next highly-regarded competition, Little Miss Sunshine. They also learn that Olive, the runner-up, now gets to compete. 

Plot Point One

The Hoovers realize they all (Sheryl, Richard, Olive, Dwayne, and Grandpa) have to go to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, several states away, together. 

Rising Action

The Hoovers encounter a number of obstacles while on their road trip to the pageant. During an overnight stay in a motel, an agent tells Richard his professional development program is a flop and cannot be sold, leaving the Hoover family in a tough spot financially. 


Olive says Grandpa won’t wake up. The Hoovers rush him to the hospital, but they are too late. Grandpa is dead and it seems to be the end of their trip to the pageant. 

Plot Point Two

Richard tells the family that they have come too far to turn back now; they decide to steal Grandpa’s body from the hospital and continue to the pageant.

Build Up

The family runs late, encountering even more obstacles as they near their destination: Dwayne has a meltdown when he learns he is colorblind, and they get pulled over by a police officer who nearly discovers Grandpa’s body in the trunk. When they arrive to the pageant, they are told they are late and cannot compete. After Richard pleads to a pageant official, they are begrudgingly admitted entrance.


Olive’s performance in the pageant turns out to be a very adult, burlesque-style dance, and the pageant officers and audience are appalled. In an attempt to save her from being kicked off the stage, the Hoover family jumps on stage and dances with her. 


The Hoovers are arrested but told they will be free of all charges so long as they do not enter a pageant in the state ever again. They accept the offer and make their way back home.

Little Miss Sunshine Script Takeaway #1

Little Miss Sunshine’s theme

Michael Arndt makes Little Miss Sunshine’s theme known on the first page of the script. Between Olive’s obvious devotion to becoming a pageant queen, and Richard’s not-so-successful professional development program, it is instantly clear that this story is about what it means to be a winner or a loser.

We’ve added the Little Miss Sunshine screenplay to StudioBinder’s screenwriting software to dissect these impactful moments. Follow the image link to read the entire scene.

Little Miss Sunshine - Family Dinner  •  Read Full Scene

The theme is reiterated in several scenes throughout the screenplay. Especially as Richard incessantly finds a way to mention his Nine Steps program, desire for Olive to be a winner, and belief that many people around him are losers. It stands to reason that Richard’s opening monologue perfectly encapsulates the theme, informing the audience of the pressure this family feels to win. 

In the first scene with the family, each character exhibits their views on the “all or nothing” mentality. At this place of rest, we learn Dwayne has taken a vow of silence until he reaches his goal of becoming a pilot; Sheryl struggles simply to support her family; Richard imposes his winner-takes-all outlook onto Olive; Frank has “failed” at attempting suicide; Grandpa isn’t as concerned with winning or losing; and Olive just tries her best to do right by Richard. 

Little Miss Sunshine characters in action

As we see the characters interact throughout the scene, our first takeaway (as enforced by the theme) is that while Richard asks the question, “Winners and Losers; What’s the difference?” It's clear that for the Hoovers, the difference is the illusion of control. The Hoovers view winning as a choice, and throughout the screenplay, we witness their desperate attempts to choose wisely. 

Little Miss Sunshine Script Takeaway #2

Little Miss Sunshine characters shine

Little Miss Sunshine’s characters are layered and complicated, but who they are essentially boils down to two main parts: who they strive to be publicly and who they are inside. While we can analyze each character as their private versus public personas, we can look specifically at our hero, Olive. 

Arndt sets the external and internal stakes of this script using Olive’s character. After the inciting incident, Olive’s external objective is born: she has a chance to win the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. Soon after, the internal conflict presents itself when Richard confronts Olive about whether or not she can win.

Thus, Arndt introduces the idea that these two components of Olive’s goal represent who she is as a protagonist. Outwardly, she wants to win the pageant. Privately, she struggles to impress her dad. These two conflicts, internal and external, clash and manifest in her choices for the duration of the script. 

One scene especially exhibits that manifestation, and that is when Olive and Grandpa, her mentor, have a heart-to-heart. Olive opens up to Grandpa, telling him she doesn’t want to be a loser. Here's the scene as written in the script.

Little Miss Sunshine characters have a heart-to-heart  •  Read Full Scene

At face value, this comment could revolve around the pageant. But once again, it becomes clear that Olive worries about her dad hating losers. Here's the scene again in the final filmed version.

Olive and Grandpa have a heart-to-heart

This not only re-enforces the theme, but Olive’s character, obstacles, and desires as a reflection of her two immediate conflicts. Similarly, at the film’s climax, Olive acknowledges that her dance may not win her the crown.

But, reflecting Grandpa’s advice during their heart-to-heart, she will try her best at something and have fun doing it, which ironically allows her to connect with Richard on a deeper level whether or not her jury deems her a winner.  

Little Miss Sunshine Script Takeaway #3

The thrilling and emotional ending 

The ending sequence of Little Miss Sunshine is jaw-dropping to say the least. After the family’s exhausting, emotional journey to arrive at the pageant, the dramatic question “Is Olive a winner or a loser?” will finally be answered.

Referring to Olive’s decision to compete, Arndt refers to her choice as her kamikaze moment of commitment. Several moments lead up to the nerve-wracking moment of Olive’s performance, though, and allow for the climactic ending to take full effect.

Little Miss Sunshine climactic ending

Little Miss Sunshine climactic ending

Many characters have their own moment of reckoning. Richard watches the competition as Olive preps backstage, and despite his idea that Olive can simply decide to win, reality hits him: she can’t win. Likewise, Dwayne (Olive’s ally) watches mere seconds of the pageant, and he betrays her when he advises Sheryl against letting Olive compete.

Richard and Dwayne hastily approach Sheryl to tell her to not let Olive go on stage. Dwayne and Richard are in accord for once, which is a reversal in its own right, and Sheryl asks Olive if she wants to drop out of the competition. 

Olive decides to compete

These moments ping pong off of each other to bring us to the moment that decides the family’s fate: will Olive act on their advice to quit out of fear for being judged? Or will she listen to Grandpa’s advice of winning by not being afraid to fail? 

Olive’s pageant performance

With each character, we are taught to think of failure as total ruin (Dwayne being colorblind, Frank committing suicide after not receiving a genius grant, Richard’s failed program, etc.). But these failures build to the idea that Olive can win, which now seems downright unlikely.

However, since her character is created with a pure heart, Olive follows Grandpa’s advice, and even though the Hoovers are temporarily detained in the end, or at the denouement, Olive’s choice still allows for a complete reversal of each character’s, and therefore audience’s belief of what it really means to win. 


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Little Miss Sunshine is full of great lessons in screenwriting like building plots, characters, and themes. If you want to continue reading screenplays, check out scripts like The Office and The Breakfast Club in our screenplay database. Browse and download PDFs for all of our scripts as you read, write, and practice your craft to become the next great screenwriter.

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