Movie Review: Sunshine Cleaning (2009)

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Golden Smog - Sunshine Cleaning (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

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Rather than give into the required ultimatum that she must medicate her mischievous grade school age son, Oscar (Jason Spevack)-- the proud and hard-working maid Rose (Amy Adams) decides to go into business for herself in order to foot the bill for private school tuition. Somehow finagling her deadbeat, pot smoking, perpetually fired, younger sister Norah (Emily Blunt) to join the venture, Rose takes the rather unorthodox advice of her married police officer lover (Steve Zahn) to get into the lucrative but biohazard filled racket of crime scene cleanup.

Advertised by Overture Films as a quirky comedy in the vein of the similarly themed and titled Oscar-winner Little Miss Sunshine that also shares some of the same cast and crew including Best Supporting Actor winner Alan Arkin in a fairly similar role to the 2006 movie-- Sunshine Cleaning has surprisingly become the most profitable film released so far in 2009.

As an Overture Films press release notes in a quotation from Executive Vice President of Theatrical Distribution Kyle Davies, the studio’s “aggressive word of mouth campaign, paired with favorable reactions from audiences and critics, have paid off in such a big way,” that the film has earned the “best per-theater average… of any limited or wide release thus far in 2009.”

While Sunshine Cleaning is a bit stormier than its charming Little Miss predecessor-- touching on some pretty melancholy topics throughout and opening with a suicide that jars the audience-- it's nonetheless a surprisingly touching work from Australian director Christine Jeffs (Rain, Sylvia) and first-time screenwriter Megan Holley that is consistently elevated by the solid portrayals of Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, along with supporting players Steve Zahn and Mary Lynn Rajskub.

Additionally, it’s an intelligent look at family and the way that the past still manages to linger in the present. While Blunt seems to be playing the more chaotic sister who's just one or two seconds away from spiraling out of control as she becomes affected by one of the jobs and tracks down the victim's daughter, Mary Lynn Rajskub—soon we realize that both Lorkowski siblings (as well as their flaky father) must find time to attempt to clean up some of their own messes.

And likewise, Adams shows another side of subtle heartbreaking depth as Rose. And on the surface, she appears to be the sister who tries to exude confidence and a sense of having it all together but soon we realize she’s the one on the increasing verge of chaos as the two personalities begin to shift.

Still struggling with both the tragedy of their mother's death as well as a battle with low self-esteem that finds Rose continuously returning for more hotel room trysts with her old high school boyfriend Zahn (incidentally Oscar’s father) who married somebody else—Adams manages to find a way to play the various levels and contradictory thought processes raging through Rose all at the same time that’s simply a marvel.

Intriguingly, Blunt and Adams-- who had previously worked together on-screen briefly indirectly on Mike Nichols’ film Charlie Wilson's War-- revealed in an Entertainment Weekly interview with Nicole Sperling (3/20/09; pg. 46), that they were both interested in the screenplay for Sunshine Cleaning before they even shot Wilson’s War.

Describing their natural chemistry and appreciation for one another as “love at first sight,” the two easily and believably fall into the role of downtrodden sisters in New Mexico in Jeffs’ film that was inspired by a 2001 “All Things Considered” NPR story about “best friends…in the Seattle suburbs who started a biohazard removal/cleaning service.”

Another character driven piece by Overture Films which is responsible for two extraordinary works from last year—The Visitor and Last Chance Harvey-- while Sunshine Cleaning isn't as instantly charismatic as Little Miss Sunshine, it gets its strength from the actors and by only vaguely sketching what may lie ahead in their future.

Never condescending to the audience although ensuring that their futures will be less cloudy than they had been before-- Jeffs and Holley end the film on precisely the right note. Namely, by showing us that all have changed but not trying to pigeonhole them into fixed conclusions. Instead, the filmmakers allow them to be free, breathe, and remain as natural as they were when we were first introduced to the women ninety minutes earlier.

Amy Adams & Emily Blunt