Spring is typically drought time for Holllywood. It’s post-Oscar so studios are trying to squeeze as much out of their winners as possible, and pre-summertime, when the majority of box office is earned. So if you find yourself with a few free hours on your hands you probably don’t have the title of a film on the tip of your tongue. Happily it can be a time when smaller, independent films get some breathing room.
One of these is Sunshine Cleaning. It’s the product of Big Beach Films, who also brought us the surprise hit Little Miss Sunshine. They had so much success with that picture I guess they decided to use word sunshine in as many films as possible. There’s a lot of common ground in both films. Much of the same emotional button-pushing, quirky folks, even Alan Arkin’s matter-of-fact, crazy schemes character.
I found Megan Holley’s script intriguing but unfortunately never quite exploited to its fullest here. The New Mexico backdrop was appropriately lensed in a bland and lonely manner, save one beautifully composed shot. But it is the textured and inspired performances by two emerging acting talents, Amy Adams and Emily Blunt makes this film more than worth the viewing.
They play sisters who are pushed off their emotional tracks early on in their lives. Ms. Adams is Rose the older, more responsible sister. She has a seven year old son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), no husband and is still in love with the high school quarterback who is now the town’s detective, and married with children. Rose was popular in school and top cheerleader. It was a time when she held sway over all the other girls. But that scene has shifted, as Rose now cleans homes to keep her head above water.
She has a lot of pluck and starts a crime scene clean-up service in an attempt to climb the next rung of her personal ladder and provide her son with a private education. Rose recruits her reluctant sister Norah, who lives with their father Joe (Alan Arkin), as a partner in this new venture. They stumble through their first few jobs but manage the tasks with enough competency to make some nice coin. They learn the ropes quickly, taking classes on how to legally deal with blood borne pathogens. Rose is given the idea of connecting with insurance companies to help secure leads by a friendly janitorial supply store owner named Winston (Clifton Collins, Jr.).
On the surface the story spends time on the charades aspect two people somewhat in over their head. The filmmakers balance humor and tragedy in a unique and interesting way. But below the water line is a touching story of two sisters who found their mother in the family bathtub after she opened her own veins, a “do it yourself job” as Norah describes it, and are left with a psychological clean up of their own. One could argue that two people who had gone through that tragic experience would never do this type of work. But deep inside the story we find the DNA that shines a light on the fact that they are perfect for the job.
Norah has a very sharp edge and was infinitely more traumatized over the loss of her mother than Rose. She is touched by what’s left behind in those now empty homes, and takes it upon herself to track down the daughter of one of the victims. It is a noble act, but is done as much for herself as anyone else. Another attempt to come to grips with having grown up motherless.
There is a brief and intensely powerful scene with Rose and Norah as children. We see them playing in a lawn sprinkler just before and then just after finding their mother. One moment laughing and joyous, then in an instant joy gives way to confusion and tears. The girls were so stunned they could think of nothing else to do but return to the sprinkler, hoping that somehow the water might wash away the event. Herein lies the real meaning of this story and a peek inside Ms. Holley’s insightful writing. In the end, both women eventually come to terms with their emotional paralysis and take steps to move their lives forward.
Sunshine Cleaning is not destined to be a classic. But for those looking to see two actresses at the tipping point of maturity in their craft, this one should not be missed. Visit the official film web site here.
Photos: Overture Films