Sunshine Cleaning Movie Review

R, 91 min, 2008

Director: Christine Jeffs
Writer: Megan Holley
Stars: Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin

Christine Jeffs’ Sunshine Cleaning is a delightfully dark surprise fighting through an overwhelmingly sunny (and misleading) ad campaign.

Rose (Amy Adams) and Norah Lorkowski (Emily Blunt) are two sides of the same coin. Rose is a maid, a single mom living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who is raising her 7-year-old son Oscar (Jason Spevack) with occasional cheap babysitting assistance from her flaky sister. She is carrying on an affair with Oscar’s biological father, married detective Mac (Steve Zahn), who is always offering to help Rose in some way or another and is trapped in a passionless (if not sexless) marriage to another high school sweetheart. Norah can’t hold a steady job (she is fired from being a waitress during the opening credit sequence), tells Oscar stories which (though he can’t get enough) give him nightmares, and occasionally parties with local boyfriends. Rose and Norah’s father Joe (Alan Arkin, playing right in his wheelhouse) is a lovable old codger who is a great grandfather to Oscar, makes promises he tries hard to keep in one way or another, and uses (potential) get-rich-quick schemes to accomplish his goals.

A plot (of sorts) kicks in when Rose discovers Oscar needs to be put in a special school to cater to his unique personality traits (he is a bit attention-deficit, a bit high-spirited, a bit hyperactive). Where will the money come from? It’s about this time that Mac offers to use his connections to throw her some business cleaning up crime scenes. Thus Rose gets the idea: Sunshine Cleaning, a small, humble service to dispose of the messes left behind at bloody murder sites, suicides, etc. Pull Norah into the proceedings and they’re off and away.

The film also involves Rose’s burgeoning friendship with cleaning supply clerk and model airplane-maker Winston (Clifton Collins Jr.), a remarkably patient gentleman with one arm; Rose’s desperate desire to attend a conflictingly-scheduled baby shower which will provide the opportunity to (potentially) throw her newfound success in the faces of those who treated her poorly in high school (who doesn’t dream of such a chance?). Then there’s Joe’s continual failures at making his investment opportunities fly, and Norah’s friendship with nurse Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), the cute, estranged daughter of a suicide Norah cleaned up after. All of these plot strands sort of co-exist without touching or intertwining too much during the film’s short running time.

The film has been directed by Christine Jeffs, a New Zealander who previously made Rain (2001; not the one with Melora Walters), and the Plath biopic Sylvia (2003) with Gwyneth Paltrow. This is, by far, her sunniest film to date, despite the extraordinarily macabre material. The screenplay is a first for past editor-director Megan Holley and it’s a gem.

The characters are unique and live lives which are ordinary yet absorbing. The material is funny without ever stretching too far to be so. The plot finds a way to resolve itself without feeling like the arbitrary resolution of a plot. Things change, one door closes and another opens, and life goes on.

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