© 2009 Ray Wong
The marketing geniuses tried to sell Sunshine Cleaning, small indie film starring two of today's most promising female stars, as a comedy. That's a big mistake. The film is a small, intimate, and touching drama in every sense of the word (although it does have comical moments).
Rose (Amy Adams) is a single mom with a young son, Oscar (Jason Spevack). Rose is a former cheerleader and is having an affair with her married ex-boyfriend, Mac (Steve Zahn), who is a cop. When the hyper-imaginative Oscar is deemed "unsuitable" for his elementary school, Rose wants to send him to a private school, but she doesn't make a lot of money as a maid. Mac pulls some strings for her and suddenly she finds herself cleaning up biohazards at crime scenes.
She needs a partner in this lucrative business, and the only person she can count on is her aimless sister, Norah (Emily Blunt). With the help of Winston (Clifton Collins, Jr.), the kind owner of an industrial cleaning supplies store, Rose starts to learn the robes and begins to expand her business. Suddenly she's making really good money, but the job doesn't come without some drawbacks. It's gruesome, disgusting, and depressing. Meanwhile, Norah is haunted by her past experience while trying to solve a mystery involving a woman who died alone in her filthy apartment.
Amy Adams (Doubt) is an extraordinary actress who has deservedly garnered attention in the past few years. She has great range, and here, she plays a desperate single mother to great sympathy. Her character is flawed, but you feel for her, and her every triumph or mistake. Adams' wonderful performance makes us care deeply about her character. Blunt (Charlie Wilson's War) plays a different character. Norah is irresponsible and emotionally hollow. As we find out more about her and her demons, Blunt's spot-on performance draws great sympathy and empathy from the audience. She and Adams also have great chemistry together.
Alan Arkin (Marley & Me) plays yet another wiseass grandpa like he did in Little Miss Sunshine (both has sunshine in their titles -- coincidence?). But he's just so good in those roles. Jason Spevack (Hollywoodland) does a good job with Oscar without coming off as yet another irritating brat. Steve Zahn (Rescue Dawn) has grown up, now playing mature and serious roles. He's slightly miscast but it could just be my own prejudice. And Clifton Collins Jr. (Star Trek) is effective as the quiet Winston. He's one of these "good guys" character that you can't help but feel comfortable with.
First-time scribe Megan Holley has written an understated screenplay with an interesting premise. The idea alone is a smart choice, but what Holley does to it, while not completely original, is heartfelt and intriguing. There is no high drama (well, except for a house fire scene), and the plot develops gradually and organically. What Holley does well is develop great, three-dimensional characters that are flawed but sympathetic. Their relationships feel genuine and their problems seem real. There are a few subplot that feels a bit tagged on, however, and the story could have been streamlined better.
Christine Jeffs' (Sylvia) direction is laid-back and as-a-matter-of-fact, which fits the story perfectly. Jeffs also doesn't editorialize or moralize the story. The characters are flawed and they often make wrong choices, but Jeffs is not passing any judgment, and the audience is encouraged to do the same. Therefore, the story feels genuine and has a quiet strength to it. Some plot points are somewhat implausible. For example, there's no way a cop would give that business to someone without a license and insurance!
Minor hiccups aside, the film has a solid script, excellent performances, and a warm core. It's a sliver of indie sunshine through the clouds of big budget humdrum of late.
Stars: Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin, Jason Spevack, Steve Zahn, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Clifton Collins Jr.
Director: Christine Jeffs
Writer: Megan Holley
MPAA Rating: R for language, disturbing images, some sexuality and drug use
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Script – 8
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total – 7.8 out of 10