Movie Review: Sunshine Cleaning (2009)

Rose and Norah (Amy Adams and Emily Blunt) on their first clean-up job

Photo: Overture Films

My expectations for Sunshine Cleaning were mild after it left the 2008 Sundance Film Festival with very little buzz. Considering it stars Emily Blunt, Amy Adams and Alan Arkin I expected fireworks and ticker-tape parades. It had a unique premise that opened up a myriad of possibilities — two sisters start up a crime scene cleaning service — and employed talent across the board. So what was the deal? If I had to wager a guess I would say it’s because the film is sold as an “off-beat dramatic comedy,” when Sunshine Cleaning is way more drama than it is comedy. I wouldn’t even particularly call it off-beat. A crime scene cleaning service isn’t a typically filmed movie occupation, but it is still an occupation and it plays only a minor role in a film that deals with life, death and family and the effect one can have on the other.

Adams stars as Rose, a single mother working as a maid in need of a bigger paycheck in order to get her son into private school. Thanks to a tip from her married, cop boyfriend (Steve Zahn) she learns of the money that can be made in crime scene clean-up. With the help of her recently unemployed sister, Norah (Emily Blunt), the two form Sunshine Cleaning and are on their way, soon finding themselves learning more about one another and the people around them.

Norah still lives with her father, Joe (Alan Arkin), whose role is limited early on, but really takes hold once he is asked to babysit Rose’s son Oscar while she is on the job. Joe’s penchant for get rich quick schemes and Oscar’s ADD (which has gotten him into some trouble at school) work well together and make way for some of the more eccentric story arcs. Fortunately the character traits of both Joe and Oscar add a bit of relevance to each moment as opposed to making them seem quirky simply for the sake of scoring a couple of meaningless laughs.

However, what truly brought me into the feature were the performances by Adams and Blunt. The two play perfectly off one another, especially Blunt whom I can’t imagine won’t be accepting an Oscar one day (same goes for Adams by the way). Both tap into the emotional core of their characters with assured dedication. Blunt shows a lot of vulnerability in a character searching for a reason to break free while Adams brings a mixture of her usual spunk as well as a little something new. She isn’t the bouncing pixie she seems to be in so many of her films, nor is she the mousy character she played in her Oscar-nominated turn in Doubt. She definitely has a little bit of the spark we have seen in her other characters, but she is also given moments to act strong and take charge. In all actuality I would say this is the first time I have seen her play something resembling an average human being in a long time.

As a matter of fact, despite occasional bouts of melodrama, this film creates a world more real than most you see in films of this sort. The characters drive cars and live in houses/apartments befitting their economic status. They don’t drive BMWs or live in 1,400 square foot lofts all while barely making a living. It’s these details that help lend a bit of reality to the film when it decides it wants to delve into the cliché or more exaggerated moments in the story.

This is Christine Jeffs’ first directorial outing since Sylvia in 2003 and she certainly gets much more out of her actors here than she was able to out of Gwyneth Paltrow back then. Jeffs shows much more control over the narrative and allows her actors to tell the story and simply made sure the camera was there to capture it all.

The naysayers toward this film are either wrongly comparing it to Little Miss Sunshine or went into it expecting a comedy filled with pratfalls as Blunt and Adams go about cleaning up gory, blood-soaked crime scenes. It is neither of these things. This film is far more entertaining than Little Miss Sunshine and if you go in expecting comedy you’ll get a little, but you better quickly adjust your expectations or the film will leave you behind. This is a fantastic and uplifting film that, quite frankly, I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying.

GRADE: B+

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