Sunshine Cleaning (2008)

Amy Adams and Emily Blunt clean up their lives in this mirthful tale of redemption

Photo of Amy Adams and Emily Blunt in ‘Sunshine Cleaning’ (2008)

Amy Adams and Emily Blunt in ‘Sunshine Cleaning’ (2008)

Synopsis

Something supremely tragic always seems on the verge of happening in Sunshine Cleaning. It’s a drama and a comedy. It’s a bit quirky. A bit funny. It has an odd vibe, always a tad on edge. But never over the edge. A good balancing act.

It takes a few minutes to put together the pieces. The man who kills himself in the first scene isn’t a part of the story. When we first see Rose (Amy Adams), she not a grieving widow cleaning up at a wake. Turns out that’s just her job, house cleaner. She relies on her screw-up sister Norah (Emily Blunt) to babysit her son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), while she goes for a tryst with a local lawman who attended to the guy’s suicide. Then there are detours to rescue a father (Alan Arkin) who has made a lifelong career out of failing businesses. And through this chain of events is born Sunshine Cleaning, Rose’s business venture, with freshly unemployed sister Norah, to become crime scene cleaners.

In writing this shortly after the final credits rolled, I realize I haven’t seen a story, but a series of episodes. There are grossly funny bits, such as the sisters’ first cleanup of a blood-spattered shower. There are touching bits, like the job for an elderly widow whose husband committed suicide. Director Christine Jeffs sustains an air of uncertainty in every scene. You feel like a car might come spinning out of the dark and strike down a beloved character, or a slightly puzzling character might be a child molester. You hope it isn’t that kind of movie, but the storytelling and tone are just unpredictable enough to make you feel that anything might happen. And that’s a good thing.

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One notable accomplishment by director Jeffs: she creates an entirely believable, workaday world, from the clothes to the sets to the dialog … everything rings true. It makes the progress of the characters all that more believable, and thus all that more enjoyable, to follow.

Though Sunshine Cleaning is clearly Rose’s story, each character is so clearly drawn (and so well acted) that you understand how all the characters are on their own individual trajectories toward redemption, from the major players like Rose and Norah, to tangential ones, like Rose’s maybe-going-to-be-boyfriend. Plot points where more standard films might veer into the blatantly absurd (after all, the premise just begs for over-the-top gore) are handled with an uncertainty that you are always waiting for the absurd moment of tragedy … that never really comes.

As much as I liked Sunshine Cleaning, I regret it missed a rather perfect moment to end. The sisters are talking by phone while watching their mother on TV – in her one movie role, something mentioned many times. It’s a touching moment, and I hoped it would fade out there. But I forgive the way director Jeffs caves a bit to tradition with a tie-a-bow-on-it, feel-good ending. You do feel these characters deserve it.