Richard is father of the Hoover family, husband to his wife Sheryl, and a struggling motivational speaker who just can’t seem to get his steps to success model off the ground. Richard’s struggle to succeed in his career path creates tension that carries over into his home life as he tries to set the example for his children Dwayne and Olive that life is all about being a winner and nothing less. At first glance, his parenting style seems cold and harsh putting such high expectations and instilling strict values about success on his children, but in looking at Richard’s decision-making process he is much more loving and caring than what shows on the surface.
One of the first scenes of the film details a family dinner shaken up by the presence of Frank, Sheryl’s brother, who has recently tried to kill himself and is now on suicide watch which brings him to temporarily move in with the Hoover family. Dinner conversation begins awkwardly with a brief explanation of Frank’s presence in the home. In true childlike fashion, Olive immediately verbalizes the questions brought up by her unfiltered curiosity including “why did you try to kill yourself?” and “why were you unhappy?” to which Richard immediately tries to put an end to. Sheryl, however, interrupts in Frank and Olive’s defense explaining that Frank is allowed to share, and Olive will learn about it eventually. Richard was truly just trying his best to fulfill his role as the father to protect his youngest child from learning some of the darker parts of the world at such a young age.
Richard represents the dilemma every parent encounters as their children age and they realize, as parents, their unintentional influence on the way their children see the world and make decisions about right and wrong. Richard’s solution to this dilemma is to carry over his motivational speaking career into his personal life by raising his children to be winners through constant pep-talks laced with pressuring remarks but ultimately out of the goodness of his heart. The point in the road trip in which Richard faces his demons is when Richard makes a call at a gas station pay phone only to find out his self-help book deal, what would be a major turning point in his career, has fallen through. Richard internalizes this shame as they drive into the night, and finally cracks when himself and Sheryl are alone in a motel room where they can finally and ironically fight in peace. Richard storms out, drives all night to confront his deal partner only to get rejected again. With no hope left for his book deal, Richard makes peace with the present and realizes that this trip is about Olive and his family. His intentions are mainly to just make it home alive, but Richard’s failure ultimately allows himself to finally be grounded in the present and become the true family man he always ways but didn’t know how to be.
Sheryl, mother of Olive and Dwayne, husband to Richard, and sister to Frank is no doubt the rock of the family. Sheryl holds a full-time job, is a full-time mother, and takes on the responsibility of being a full-time sister after her brother is put on 24-hour suicide watch and entrusted into her care. Not only does she do all of this, but she does it with a smile on her face as she strives to create a positive atmosphere for her children to grow up. Given that Dwayne has entered his angsty teen years and has also taken a vow of silence until he is accepted into the Air Force academy, most of Sheryl’s parenting skills are developed through Olive as she serves as the only prominent female role model in the nuclear family. Sheryl finds joy in answering all of the questions Olive’s wild curiosity brings to mind and makes sure Olive and the rest of the family realize how important they are to her and one another.
As the mother and rock of the family, Sheryl’s dilemmas naturally coincide with those of her family. Sheryl is thrown into crisis mode right in the opening scene of the movie as she is called to be informed that her brother has tried to kill himself and can be seen racing down the highway, cigarette in hand, to meet her brother at the hospital. In true motherly fashion, Sheryl can be seen in the very next scene preparing dinner for the family and having to deal with lash back from Grandpa who complains about the fried chicken Sheryl must have picked up on her way home from the hospital. Sheryl represents every working mother who will do anything for her family, even if at the expense of her own time, energy, and happiness.
Sheryl resolves all of her conflicts simultaneously at climax of the film’s plot as she offers her full support of Olive’s pageant routine despite the family’s concern for embarrassment and yearning for protection of Olive from ridicule. At this point in the film, the family has made it to the pageant only to come to realize Olive does not fit the mold these other girls have created for themselves. Olive does not catch on to these social cues and is just happy to be there. While the rest of the family is blinded by their own concern, Sheryl manages to tune in to the attitude of Olive and realizes that they all need to “let Olive be Olive” and to celebrate her for who she just as she realizes her whole family needs to do the same. Sheryl gives Olive one final, encouraging pep talk and tells her to just have fun. Despite Olive’s stand out look and bold performance compared to other pageant contestant’s Sheryl is always the first to give Olive a standing ovation. Sheryl loves her family and through this journey learns that she is not afraid to show it.
Frank is the brother of Sheryl who didn’t have a place in the nuclear family until the opening scene of this film where being put on suicide watch lands him a shared room with Dwayne, who doesn’t speak, and a place at the table of a family seemingly as unstable as himself. Frank displays no resistance to the situation, however, and quickly grows comfortable with the chaos as he finds himself quite literally along for the ride to the pageant given that he can’t be left anywhere alone. Frank gives himself up to the journey and allows himself to go with the wind presumably because he had no intention to still be alive for any of these events to happen.
It’s the little things throughout the movie where the audience sees a glimpse of Frank beginning to once again enjoy life. Whether it’s the subtle breeze coming through the VW bus as they cruise down the highway or the games Olive wants to play to pass the time in the bus that Frank willingly joins in on. As the family journey begins to draw to a close, however, Frank realizes that he needs to find a new purpose in life and a will to take care of himself independently from the Hoover family. Following a mental breakdown by Dwayne, in which he renounces his vow of silence, Dwayne and Frank find companionship in one another, although mostly from being roommates and the only two people not technically responsible for Olive. Nevertheless, towards the end of the film the two find themselves escaping the chaos of the pageant to stand on the dock looking out onto the Pacific Ocean.
What ensues is a meaningful exchange where, by trying to give advice to Dwayne Frank ends up realizing himself how he can be transformed from the suffering he has experienced through his struggle with his own mental health. There is no a-ha moment where the audience can see this connection in Frank’s brain, but through discernment of the dialogue and context of the decisions Frank makes to make no further suicidal verbalizations or ideations known the growth from the beginning of the film to that moment is very apparent. Frank represents someone who has gone through the worst and come out the other side without realizing how much strength it took for them to get where they are now. Frank possesses resilience beyond his knowledge and the journey he had no choice but to participate in brought him even just one step closer to realizing that.
Dwayne may not have any dialogue for the first half of the film due to his self-prescribed vow of silence until he is accepted into the Air Force Academy, but that does not keep him from using his pen and pad of paper to clue the audience in on his values, attitude, and beliefs. He loves Fredrich Nietzsche and hates just about everyone else and has no shame in letting the world know through a quick scribble on his notepad. Similar to Frank, Dwayne is really just along for the ride both at home and on the road until he is old enough to move out and join the air force. He is very motivated in training for the academy and seems to care about nothing else. This becomes a problem when Olive unintentionally gives Dwayne a colorblindness test in the car to pass the time and reveals that Dwayne is in fact colorblind. Frank acknowledges that Dwayne can’t fly planes if he is colorblind, and the resulting breakdown brings the entire road trip to a stop, literally.
Dwayne’s purpose in life is ripped right out from underneath him in the middle of a road trip he has no choice but to endure for the sake of his little sister, Olive. In midst of his breakdown, parents Richard and Sheryl are in complete shock and are grasping at straws thinking back to what parenting skills are called for in this totally unique situation. Surprisingly enough Olive heads down to an openly weeping Dwayne and just sits with him. The stillness in this moment of the film is reminiscent of the silence Dwayne no longer must abide by, and also inviting of the audience into a moment of reflection on what it is like to experience such a sudden loss of meaning and purpose.
Dwayne represents anyone who has ever had to soldier on immediately following a sudden change in the course of their life. Soon after his breakdown, Dwayne gets right back up and back into the VW bus, and uses his reclaimed voice to offer encouragement to his sister Olive and to find companionship in his uncle Frank. The above quote by Dwayne comes from the meaningful talk he shares with Frank overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and while aggressive in tone the refusal to accept his worst nightmare as a failure shows the strength behind a character who could just as easily be overlooked as the angsty teen of the bunch. Dwayne is the big brother strong enough to accept a helping hand from his little sister on one of his darkest days.
Grandpa is a veteran of WWII who found himself living with his son Richard’s family after being kicked out of his retirement home for selling and using heroin, which he is still seen enjoying in his very first scene of the film. He has no filter when it comes to his language or opinions, but will do anything for his granddaughter, Olive, including taking on the roles of coach and choreographer of her pageant routines. On the surface his harsh with and vulgar commentary to the older members of the family can seem counterproductive to the warm and gentle advice Grandpa offers Olive. However, on further dissection of the dialogue and the context of each conversation it becomes apparent that he is drawing on his extensive life experience in an effort to give them advice on how to make the most out of their lives seeing as he has no other identified purpose to his life besides coaching Olive and feeding his addiction.
Unfortunately, Grandpa loses the long-fought battle with his addiction to heroin overdose in the middle of the night at a motel the family stops at during their road trip. Just hours before, during their last practice before the big pageant, Grandpa had sat down with Olive to reassure her that she is beautiful, she is loved, and she is a winner for even trying in the world of pageantry. Grandpa didn’t seem to know it at the time, but his unconventional words of semi-wisdom kept the family moving forward right up until his untimely death.
The charm of the film is strongly felt in the hilarity that ensues as the family steals their own dead grandfather’s body and cart him along in the trunk of the bus until the road trip is over and they can offer him a proper and more timely burial. The family’s decision to break the rules and have a little bit of fun while doing it reflect the same spirit Grandpa brought to the journey when he was still with them. Grandpa represents those who have mastered the balance between not taking life too seriously and taking the extra steps to let the people you love know they are loved in the moments when it matters most.
Olive, the youngest of the family and the whole reason for the road trip which would change their family dynamic forever, provides the light for the Hoover family in their darkest moments. Without knowing it, Olive reminds everyone of what it’s like to have dreams bigger than themselves and how to love unconditionally in the face of family conflict. Olive loves beauty pageants but, unbeknownst to her, does not fit the strict mold the pageant world demands of the girls who participate. Olive’s innocence makes her naïve to many darker parts of the world, while also allowing her to be her most authentic self-free from any internalized expectations of what it means to be a beauty queen today.
Olive’s shining moment takes place in the final round of the pageant, the talent round. This is Olive’s chance to make her late Grandpa proud by performing the routine both of them have been rehearsing for weeks. The performance is a strip-burlesque inspired dance to “Superfreak” by Rick James. Neither Olive’s family or the audience are prepared for this kind of performance from a seven-year-old. The difference in her family and the audience however, is that despite all the pain this road trip has caused the family thus far they have finally reached the part that is all about Olive and them all band together to make her feel appreciated during this performance.
From an outside perspective, the performance is a total train wreck as pageant officials try to usher Olive offstage which prompts with her father to start dancing his way onto the stage to defend her and ends with the entire family dancing on stage for the entire pageant audience to see. In the context of the events leading up to this moment, this dance can be seen as a celebration of just about everything. For the Hoover family, this performance is a celebration of their daughter, of their little victories in spite of their losses, and of every imperfection that makes their family their own. The looks of disgust from the audience and audible disapproval by pageant staff cannot touch the joy that the Hoover family feels on that stage in that moment, and it’s all because of Olive.