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The Movies aren't big on reality these days. Films about the problems of ordinary people are few and far between, and stories about the economic worries of working folk are even scarcer. Either the 'ordinary people' turn out to be upper middle class folk connected to the American Dream of affluence, or they're comedy constructs sustained by goofy coincidences and happily-ever-after plotting. Come to think of it, the average American movie these days featuring working class types, is more often than not a neo-noir about drugs or crime.
2008's Sunshine Cleaning was marketed as the next Little Miss Sunshine, which made me wary. That comedy success was for this reviewer a depressing show that got its laughs poking fun at a family of low self-esteem types and others in the throes of self-loathing. Audiences loved Sunshine's criticism of the kiddie beauty pageant, but I wasn't amused by the conclusion that terminal tackiness is an acceptable, cool defense against the world. I mean, a kid is involved, being warped into a weird and self-destructive worldview. Not fun or funny; just my take.
Sunshine Cleaning has a few similarities but is not a farce; its comedy is all behavorial and situational. The main character Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams of Doubt) lives in fear that she has become a "loser", but still has plenty of fight left in her. Rose is a former head high school cheerleader left behind in the social swirl of Albuquerque. A struggling single mother, Rose works as a maid, cleaning the houses of women that once admired her in school. Rose's teen boyfriend Mac (Steve Zahn of That Thing You Do) is now a police detective. He married somebody else; she's carrying on a hopeless affair with him.
Things slip out of control when Rose's son Oscar (Jason Spevack) gets in trouble at school for "weird" behavior. It adds up to little more than precocious curiosity, but the principal's official reaction is to give Rose the choice of drugging her kid or taking him somewhere else. Oscar is soon out of school spending time with his grandfather Joe (Alan Arkin), an aging independent salesman still looking for a hot angle in a tight market. Where is Rose going to get the money?
The answer comes from Mac. Bloody crime scene /biohazard disposal experts get big wages for cleaning up blood, body fluids and other human remains. For Emily the job is pretty much just maid service on a larger, more unpleasant scale, with a larger payday to match. Rose is quick to enlist her younger sister Norah (Emily Blunt), a woman with serious life adjustment problems that prevent her from holding down a conventional job. Rose and Norah become owner-operators in the queasy, sometimes disturbing business of cleaning up after human disasters. The actual dead bodies have been removed, but what's left isn't pretty.
The new "Sunshine Cleaning" girls jump right into business, despite an almost complete ignorance of what is in reality a specialized trade. We're on their side when an established operator mentions two amateurs poaching his business, but it soon becomes clear that Rose and Norah can't tell a biohazard from baloney and have no notion of what could go wrong. Sunshine Cleaning's trailers imply that the movie squeezes laughs out of maggot-infested mattresses and body tissues splattered in the bathrooms of gross-out suicides. This is not so. Rose and Norah must walk into rooms filled with the stench of death and deal with unpleasant things that "normal" people don't. But A) it's an essential service, and B) it beats working as a menial servant cleaning up after yuppies that think they're better than you are. For the first time, Emily feels she can hold her head high, to have pride in her work.
I won't spoil what happens with further explanation, but suffice it to say that character difficulties get in the way. Have you ever been unemployed, and felt that you'd have difficulty holding down a job because of other problems in your life? This is what life is like for Americans slugging their way to work every day. Nobody's home life is perfect. Doing one's 8 to 6 shift properly can result in things at home falling apart. Rose and Norah have plenty of bad family history to overcome, a core sadness that affects their father as well. Director Christine Jeffs' eerie flashback scenes are like nightmares combined with home movies.
Sunshine Cleaning is frequently funny, but the story is realistic enough to make us concerned that a tragedy might unfold at any moment. The random murderers and suicides Rose and Norah clean up after aren't isolated weirdos. The Lorkowskis also have plenty of reasons to despair, singly and as a family unit. Disappointment and humiliation are everywhere. Rose must suffer the wrath of Mac's furious wife. Joe buys a lot of expensive frozen shrimp, hoping to profit through sales to restaurants. It falls through. Norah becomes emotionally involved with a deceased "client" and tracks down Lynn (Mary Lynn Raskub of julie & Julia), the daughter of one of her suicide cases. The reason becomes clear later on, explaining Norah's need for sensation to drown out her own sublimated traumas. The movie suggests that the cure for existential depression in the working class Service Sector is independence, both economic and personal. Rose needs to be self-employed, somehow, and she needs to clear up the tangle of her emotional relationships. Even with the disasters that befall Rose and Norah, the movie shows in a credible and constructive way that there is hope.
In other words, Sunshine Cleaning is a relevant story for tough economic times, when self-doubts and personal failings are even more acute. The whole country is having a Rose Lorkowski-like breakdown of self-esteem.
Amy Adams is luminous as Rose, a worried individual whose positive spirit is always at risk. The supporting cast is just as compelling, with Emily Blunt's Norah particularly good as a potentially unstable young woman looking for something to make her life come together. Alan Arkin plays a man with a tragic past, who proves to be the stable influence his daughters and grandson need. In a crucial role, Clifton Collins Jr. (the new Star Trek) plays Winston, the owner of a janitorial supply company who indulges the girls' ignorance of their new "profession" and quietly becomes a friend of the family. Winston is missing an arm, an issue that the script handles with a minimum of fuss. It's clear that this isolated man would eagerly drop his model plane hobby for the chance of winning a girlfriend, but Sunshine Cleaning isn't the kind of movie where everyone's wishes are granted. The rewards end up being small and personal. Winston earns new friends. Rose discovers that she's no longer a menial drudge -- people need her service. She provides comfort to the distresed.
Screenwriter Megan Holley and director Christine Jeffs show a delicate touch when it comes to portraying "types" -- the upscale housewives Rose wants so badly to impress are not held up as easy targets for scorn. The idea of school bureaucrats entreating Rose to have her "deviant" son put on personality-altering medication will play as forced unless one is aware that such pernicious practices are often the norm in our drug-soaked nation. The filmmakers' obvious sensitivity also leads me to accept the portrait of little Oscar as having a base in reality. I don't enjoy the scene where Oscar is encouraged to think, as a defense against schoolyard taunts, that being a bastard is a positive thing. But I can see how that would be preferable to letting Oscar wallow in a shared familial shame, as has forever been the case, culturally speaking.
Anchor Bay's Blu-ray of Sunshine Cleaning is a beauty, replicating the theatrical experience. We can almost smell the clean air of Albuquerque, until Rose and Norah enter their "places of work", that is. The soundtrack is crystal clear in HD. It's not exactly a technical observation, but I was impressed by the editing in the movie ... Heather Persons' cuts are blessed with a sense of perfect timing.
Writer Megan Holley and producer Glenn Williamson are present for a commentary track that addresses all of the usual personality and production issues. A trailer is included as well. The surprise is the featurette entitled A Fresh Look at a Dirty Business. It begins as a garden-variety promo piece, but quickly segues into fifteen fascinating minutes with a pair of real-life crime scene / biohazard disposal experts. The two ladies (one's an ex-nurse) work out of a truck and use fully authorized and licensed techniques and tools in their work. As in the movie, they take care of problems that relatives shouldn't have to deal with, and frequently comfort those left behind. We hear about risks involved in the job that one might not think of -- when they're cleaning up crime scenes, there's always the possibility that a perpetrator might come back, perhaps to recover incriminating evidence. The ladies know they're providing a needed and honorable service ... a fact around which Rose of Sunshine Cleaning re-establishes her personal self-esteem.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sunshine Cleaning Blu-ray rates:
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