Film Review: Sunshine Cleaning

Yet another small but sweet film featuring a dysfunctional family comprised of quirky characters caught up in curious circumstances.

Rose, as she herself points out periodically, is a loser. An unwed mother whose son suffers from attention-deficient disorder, she works a dead-end job cleaning the homes of her successful contemporaries, some of whom were her classmates in high school. As if this isn’t humiliation enough, she sneaks around with the guy she dated in her glory days, when she was the sexy cheerleader and he the star quarterback, despite that he married her rival years ago. Did we mention she must also cope with a screwed-up sister who never recovered from her mother’s suicide, and an eccentric father with a tendency to waste money on harebrained business schemes?

Sunshine Cleaning
takes its title from Rose’s own entrepreneurial adventure, a crime-scene janitorial service specializing in hard cases, which she undertakes with help from said sister. Director Christine Jeffs (Sylvia), working with first-time screenwriter Megan Holly, efficiently establishes the grisly premise and engages the narrative, managing a few running gags on biohazard and other drolleries. This is a chick flick of a different dolor, dispensing with the heartache of romance in favor of self-sufficiency, although our two heroines don’t so much empower themselves as have empowerment thrust upon them.

Rose (Amy Adams) and Norah (Emily Blunt) are too pretty and witty to be mistaken for mopes, so viewers must willfully suspend disbelief to embrace the conceit that two such lovely women can’t find good men, let alone good jobs. But the actresses play off each other well despite their different personalities and styles—Adams seductively vulnerable, Blunt vulnerably seductive—and they are great fun to watch. Blunt, in particular, brings Norah to life and makes her appealing, no easy task with a character nursing serious resentment, repressing her sexual identity, and indulging her inner child.

The filmmakers offer tried-and-true lessons in perseverance and grit, loyalty and unconditional love, but they seem to be grasping after grander, one might say, metaphysical matters. Rose and Norah have endured the self-inflicted death of their mother; now they are helping others struggling through the same experience, mending broken souls as well as restoring soiled living quarters. (The sisters’ business mostly concerns suicides; they live and work in Albuquerque, where violent crime seems relatively rare.) At one point, when Rose buys a van for work, her son inquires about its ancient CB radio, which the salesman explains sends messages into the heavens. The boy, Oscar (Jason Spevack), uses it to talk to God (never mentioning the deity, of course, since that might be considered improperly religious, rather than acceptably spiritual); so does Rose in a wistful musing pondering, rather obliquely, the meaning-of-it-all.

Director Jeffs wraps things up with a blithe ending appropriate to a comedy; audiences will leave the theatre with smiles and a sense of déjà vu. Not only does the title Sunshine Cleaning invite comparisons to the 2006 indie hit Little Miss Sunshine, but Alan Arkin reprises his Oscar-winning role as the curmudgeonly grandpa. He’s less obnoxious here, thankfully, and the latest role isn’t big enough to invite another Academy nomination. The question is, will ticket buyers in a tight economy spend money for a movie they feel they’ve already seen?