I fully expected to like this movie ever since seeing the preview. If you’re not drawn in by the cast (Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin) then maybe you’re sucked in by the premise: sisters start a crime scene clean-up business. My companion and I had the amazing good fortune to get to chat before and after the movie with two ladies who do just that. Their profession is misunderstood and, they urged, wildly misrepresented on CSI et al. How wonderful to come out of that movie beaming with pleasure and then see their faces equally lit up! It’s an endorsement to the truth of the tale but we all would have endorsed Sunshine Cleaning just for its good story.
An interesting side effect of the subject matter is how the film illuminates the selfishness of suicide. Quiet deathbed scenes are not what these ladies are hired to take care of, but the jarring mess of hasty ends. The aftermath is more than just stained mattresses and unclaimed mementos, and Sunshine Cleaning twines around that idea throughout the tale. The real-life cleaners agreed with Adams’ character’s assessment of what she does — more than just a cleaning job, they are rewarded with helping people when their lives are at their most fragmented. These sisters’ lives are a mess, perhaps because they missed that help when they most needed it. The metaphor is delicately applied and gives the whole story a gentle veneer of truth.
This movie could easily be filed under Quirkly Indie Film and left at that. (It even has Alan Arkin, a yellow logo, and a van!) It’s got moments — some in the preview — that seem as if they are those manufactured preview-ready “ain’t this movie cool and different?” moments. In context, they are very real and natural and work just as they should. Perhaps I sound cynical — but so many movies seem to find something to drop in to make their movie seem like something it is not — Sunshine Cleaning is what it seems, and more. Even the trestling scene might be a bit of a behavioral stretch, but Blunt sells us on the moment.
I loved Adams’ and Blunt’s impish chemistry as sisters, and the full ensemble of their lovable but frustratingly lost family, father Arkin and Adams’ son (Jason Spevack, adorable as the impressionable and worried Oscar). Clifton Collins, Jr. supported warmly and steadily from the sidelines as well. He has a gift of making a character you might instantly write off into someone you really want to know (see also: Capote). Blunt is the archetypal slacker, kind and vulnerable but also aimless and apathetic. Adams carries the weight of the world and the movie on her character’s shoulders; she’s such a determined go-getter but it’s not enough to keep her from slipping down the slope. Her sparkling cheerleader positivity cracks behind her angel eyes. The whole family has a bit of a mystery around them, which comes slowly into focus in such small, sweet ways (Blunt’s clumsy friendship with Mary Lynn Rajskub, sideways glances at TV movies), that by the time it culminates it just makes you blub.
So many things worked so well that you might not expect would — from the cheery fakery of an awkward high school reunion to the complexities of this line of work. Not everybody dies gracefully on clean sheets after being dipped in gold. The veracity confirmed, new tidbits learned (Listerine is a surface anticoagulant!), and the credits applauded, my companion and I emerged well-satisfied with this lovely film. Reward the filmmakers and go see it.
MPAA Rating R-language, sexuality, drug use, and some disturbing images
Release date 3/13/09
Time in minutes 92
Director Christine Jeffs