Sunshine Cleaning (United States, 2008)

March 17, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Sunshine Cleaning Poster

There has been much discussion and debate recently about the simplistic and juvenile handling of characters in female-oriented motion pictures, with perhaps Confessions of a Shopaholic being the poster child for what's wrong with many of these movies. Fortunately, there are some counterexamples, and Sunshine Cleaning represents one. Although not a perfect film - some of the shifts from comedy to drama are abrupt and awkward and the ending has an "unfinished" feel - Christine Jeff's production treats its protagonists like people, not caricatures, and that makes all the difference when it comes to identifying with these individuals.

Sunshine Cleaning starts out as a comedy before gradually re-forming into something darker and even a little tragic. The laughs don't disappear altogether, but they become less overt and frequent, and a layer of quiet despair bubbles to the surface. The main characters are two twenty-something sisters, Rose (Amy Adams) and Norah (Emily Blunt). Less than a decade ago, Rose was the high school cheerleader every girl wanted to be and every guy wanted to be with. Now, she's a single mom who works as a housecleaner to support herself and her seven-year-old son, Oscar (Jason Spevack). Her old boyfriend, Mac (Steve Zahn), married another woman but still enjoys regular motel dalliances with Rose. Meanwhile, the younger Norah still lives with her dad, Joe (Alan Arkin), and evidences neither the capacity nor the enthusiasm to hold a job. She drifts from one part-time position to the next, redefining "reliable" as "when it suits her." When Rose, needing more money than her current employment provides, goes looking for something more lucrative, Mac makes a suggestion: cleaning crime scenes and removing biohazards. The work may be a little gross, but it pays well. So, after a little reluctance, Rose buys into the idea and recruits Norah, and they embark upon a non-traditional janitorial career.

While this may sound like a suitably screwball premise, Sunshine Cleaning has some serious points to make. To this day, the women are haunted by the suicide of their mother, and their decision to clean up the debris of wasted lives stirs unwelcome memories. Both Rose and Norah sense that they're walking over someone's grave, and each copes with it differently. In one scene, Rose comforts an elderly woman whose husband has killed himself. There's also a subplot in which Norah tracks down the daughter (24's Mary Lynn Rajskub) of a dead woman whose house she sanitized. Meanwhile, upon meeting an old high school classmate, Rose is forced to deal with the undeniable truth that the kind of popularity she once enjoyed ended once the diplomas were handed out. Mac is using her for sex; he's never going to leave his wife. Perhaps she always knew that but was afraid to face the truth.

Megan Holley's screenplay is quirky but not so quirky that it becomes self-conscious or exudes the sense of artificiality that some such movies do. There's honesty in the way the characters are forced to confront uncomfortable and sometimes unwanted emotions. The movie has some difficulty navigating the spiral from offbeat comedy to introspective drama, but the narrative manages to get where it needs to go. The ending is untidy despite a ten-minute epilogue. Most of the loose ends pertain to Norah; Rose is provided with closure.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to see Sunshine Cleaning is the pairing of two of the best and most charismatic young actresses today. The movie is in part about sisterhood, and they play beautifully off one another. One could easily envision the movie being less interesting and the characters less compelling in the hands of lesser talents. So much of what makes Rose and Norah intriguing results from what we read in the eyes and the expressions of the performers. Alan Arkin, meanwhile, is building upon the role that earned him an Oscar in Little Miss Sunshine. This is pretty much the same character, making one wonder whether Arkin has now reached the typecasting phase of his career.

Sunshine Cleaning premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and it has taken Overture Films more than a year to get this into theaters, which is indicative of how difficult a sell it may be. Certainly, there aren't many comedy/tragedies out there with gore quotients high enough to rival those of horror films. But, while the blood may be off-putting to some, Rose and Norah's company for 90 minutes warrants the concession.

Sunshine Cleaning (United States, 2008)

Director: Christine Jeffs
Cast: Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin, Jason Spevack, Steve Zahn, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Clifton Collins Jr.
Screenplay: Megan Holley
Cinematography: John Toon
Music: Heather Persons
U.S. Distributor: Overture Films
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2009-03-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1