If Sunshine Cleaning is just a little too reminiscent of the indie darling Little Miss Sunshine, there’s a reason, and it’s not just the sunny title. Produced by much of the team behind the 2006 hit, Cleaning offers up a similar intimate feel, employs a couple of the same actors and infectiously convinces us that even when the world feels its coldest, there’s still a bit of warmth in there–somewhere.
First time screenwriter Megan Holley got her bright idea for this film when she heard a story on the radio about a new growth industry: the crime scene clean-up business. Her enjoyable script offers up not just two plucky parts for young leading actresses (the wonderful Amy Adams and brilliant Emily Blunt), but also a dandily entertaining ‘oh-I-can’t-look-but-maybe-I’ll-take-a-peek’ glimpse into the gory glories of scrubbing blood off of bathroom fixtures.
In what has accidentally turned out to be perhaps the first new release to actually tap into the economic and emotional desperation of our times, this ray of sunshine painstakingly shows us how these young Albuquerque-based sisters wound up cleaning other people’s guts off the floor. Rose, a single mother with a smart son who needs to be enrolled in private school, was the head cheerleader back in her high school says. Her love affair with the football captain scored a touchdown with the birth of their son, but never resulted in marriage and was never over, either–even though he’s a cop now and married to someone else.
Baby sister Norah, heavy hooded in black eyeliner, still lives at home with Dad (Alan Arkin), a salesman who is somehow bested by all of the promising get-rich quick plans he invents. All three characters, we discover, have reason for their unhappiness and their difficulties in coping with circumstances. I won’t spoil the secret here, but it is worth noting that there’s a sad irony to the career choice made by the desperate-for-cash family.
In her earlier films, Rain and Sylvia, director Christine Jeffs showed great understanding of female inner conflict. She uses that understanding to strong effect in Sunshine Cleaning. But, happily, she also displays a surprising sense of lightness, balancing out the sorry state of affairs that starts the story, and engaging us all the more along the way.
But what really makes this film sparkle are the terrifically winning performances from the entire ensemble. Young Jason Spevack, as Rose’s son, is adorable without being cutesy; Clifton Collins, Jr. is magnetic as the curiously nice and surprisingly solid guy who just might be the key to Rose’s future. Steve Zahn, as the cop/lover/dad, is great fun to watch, and it’s been wonderful to watch his growth as actor. While there was always intelligence shining through his work, even when he was just cast as the guy who runs around doing stupid stuff, his more recent work shows a real sense of decency that makes him all the more appealing. Alan Arkin, toned down a bit from his dad/grandpa role in Little Miss Sunshine, still brings a dignity to the father figure here that makes us root for him, too.
There’s no question that Amy Adams is one of the most successful actresses of her generation, and deservedly so. Beautiful but not glamorous, this acclaimed talent brings an approachable, ingratiating strength to each character she plays. Her Rose is a woman we all know, and one we can all hope will not just survive but thrive. But, for my money, it’s Emily Blunt who’s got the really interesting career ahead of her. In each performance I’ve seen, Blunt is sheer magic: unique, smart, funny, sad and impossible to take your eyes off of. Her Norah could have been just the standard Gothy screw up of a younger sister, but Blunt enhances her with so much more. Bravo.