Kevin's Review: Sunshine Cleaning - Not as Bright as You Might Think
by Kevin Powers
March 20, 2009
Back in 2007, Samuel L. Jackson starred in a movie called Cleaner, where he played the owner of a business that tidied up the biological mess of crime scenes. He was duped into helping cover up a murder, which kicked into gear the active and interesting plot. While Sunshine Cleaning leverages that same odd-but-curious career track, it's an altogether different film. Not nearly as bright and fresh as the title would leave you to believe, Sunshine Cleaning is an overcast and melancholy film. Despite its grey tones, the film contains a spectrum of color thanks to the performances of Amy Adams, Emily Blunt and Alan Arkin.
The plot is largely flat and humble, and shows a disjointed family simply trying to get by, together. It's accessible material, to be sure, and portrayed in the most artful of ways, but some may still find Sunshine Cleaning too overly dramatic and dreary a stroll.
Amy Adams, as Rose, is a single mother living in the same small town in which she grew up. While time has moved on, Rose hasn't progressed much past her glory days as the high school head cheerleader. Instead of a dynamic career and relationship, Rose gets by cleaning the houses of the friends who used to look up to her in school and sleeping with a married cop (Steve Zahn). When her son, Oscar, is threatened with being placed in a "special" program at school due to his outburst and misbehavior, Rose decides to send him to a private school. Paying for this private education is what moves the main plot. By way of her affair with Mac, Rose discovers that plying her mop and sponge to cleaning up crime scenes is a far more lucrative track than cleaning houses. Rose enlists the help of her wayward sister, Norah (Blunt), and the two awkwardly set off to start a new business, leaving Oscar with their father, Joe (Arkin), during the day.
Obviously, details around the crimes and the resulting mess can be pretty juicy and interesting plot points. However, Sunshine Cleaning spends little time on the finer points of Rose and Norah's profession and shies away from any gratuity. However, it is fun to see the two awkwardly carry a bloodstained mattress to the dumpster. Their new business is largely the jumping off point to other storylines in the film. For instance, when cleaning up a suicide, Norah discovers photos of the dead woman's daughter, who has seemingly been estranged for some time. Norah sets out to find the girl, Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), which manifests Norah's own struggles and challenges in life. Blunt has a particular presentation that exudes a genuine nonchalant attitude - that she's simply following life's current - which serves her well in this role. Yet when Norah accidentally sets fire to a client's house, Blunt's emotional range comes out in full force.
Rose, on the other hand, is far more motivated. Throughout the film she struggles to turn "Sunshine Cleaning" into a respectable business and eventually confronts her unhealthy, longstanding affair. As films of this ilk are wont to do, Rose suffers a variety of setbacks, which gives Adams' talent plenty of time to shine. Just as she did in Doubt, Adams has a remarkable and humble talent for exuding visceral nervousness and dejection that makes you really feel for her. Rose's life is wrought with struggle and sadness, and Adams pulls you in right there with her.
If the present-day events weren't depressive enough, an especially dramatic event underlines (and I suppose helps to explain) the story: their mother committed suicide. The sisters struggle with that formative event every day, as does their father, Joe, who relegates his time to get-rich-quick schemes, which all fail, naturally. When Joe can no longer watch Oscar, Rose quickly befriends the store clerk from whom she buys her chemicals, one-arm Winston (Clifton Collins Jr.). The man's handicap is never explained, and is one of the more contrived elements of the film. Two arms wouldn't have been dark enough, I suppose.
While Sunshine Cleaning is mostly dimly lit, there are hints of light. Rose's struggle to keep her family together and manage her past and present baggage is, in aggregate, an optimistic and poetic journey. If not for the moving performances from Adams and Blunt, who imbue the film with tasteful and needed hope, Sunshine Cleaning would, indeed, be a mess of a film, impervious to any solvent.