She leads an awfully empty life: wake up a tiny, nondescript house in the suburbs of Albuquerque, clean up after the wealthy and privileged to make sure Rose never forgets how little she actually has, and then pretend she's taking night classes in real estate when she's really screwing around in a dingy motel with her now-married high school fling. You call it adultery, I call it networking. See, Mac (Steve Zahn) is a cop, and he's seen first-hand just how much cash the guys who clean up after murders and suicides rake in. Poor bastard strolls into an outdoorsman store and swallows a shotgun...? Three grand, easy. Rose is desperate for the money -- gotta drop the kid into private school after the most recent in a long line of principals ordered him doped up -- and...well, she's already cleaning for a living. Is there really that much difference between soap scum and coagulated blood? Rose is already in over her head, so she drags her self-destructive sister Norah (Emily Blunt) along to help lighten the load. Turns out they're pretty good at it too. I mean, the money's great, sure, but Rose finally feels some sense of accomplishment, and in her own way, she's making the lives of the loved ones left behind at least a little better. Norah, meanwhile, catches a glimpse into the lives of the dearly departed and uses that as an excuse to sort out her own trainwreck of a childhood, even skulking after the daughter (Mary Lynn Rajskub) of one "client".
Dunno what it says about me that I found the premise so irresistable: two kinda clueless women scrubbing off splatter caked onto a shower wall or lugging a bloody mattress across a trailer park-ish lot. This is a movie that very easily could've slunk by on the strength of that concept and the cacklingly dark comedy that goes along with it, but Sunshine Cleaning doesn't take the easy way out. Sure, it's infused with a distinctively quirky edge -- it's produced by the same folks behind Little Miss Sunshine, after all -- but at its core, Sunshine Cleaning is really a character drama. More than anything, the film benefits from a terrific cast. It's not the parade of failure that makes Rose so sympathetic but her dogged determination despite the fact that she's a serial screw-up. This is a character whose name inspires thoughts of a vivacious, brilliant red, but much like her uniform at her original dayjob, Rose is more of a dull, faded pink...as if she's had all of the color and life wrung out of her. There wasn't much of a segue between Prom Queen and Mommy, as Rose took the reins as a surrogate mother for her sister before squirting out her own son, never having had a chance to really taste what adulthood had to offer...all of the grueling responsibility without anything but fleeting surface pleasures.
Some movies clumsily have to hammer home relationships between characters, but Emily Blunt immediately cements Norah as Rose's flaky, wryly sarcastic sister without leaning heavily on clunky exposition as a crutch. Blunt makes for a strong counterpoint to Adams' character...a puff from a lipstick-stained cigarette and an indifferent shrug to Rose's steel-willed optimism.
I'll admit to not being quite so taken with the subplot swirling around Rose and Norah's father. Alan Arkin's turn here too closely echoes the quirky mentorship from Little Miss Sunshine, ensnaring young Oscar in his not-even-half-baked get rich quick schemes. He makes for the few stretches that just really don't ring true, although the eventual payoff does make it all worthwhile. Rose and Oscar using a CB radio as an outlet for their feelings for the dearly departed seems fairly artificial as well. Otherwise, though, the film's written and directed with a remarkably assured hand: quietly funny without ever mugging for laughs, touching without being cloying, and cute without coming across as overly precious. It's the quieter moments that really drew me in, such as an expansive shot of Rose sitting silently with a widow ravaged by grief, laughing to herself after a missed tryst at what a failure she's become, and a devastatingly beaming smile in its final moments. Sunshine Cleaning is a beautifully crafted film, taking full advantage of the keen visual eye of cinematographer John Toon. The stark contrast between the upscale homes Rose is cleaning at the outset and the rusting, crumbling, weathered backdrops that follow mirror her own struggles, and the film owes so much of its personality to its setting of Albuquerque.
Sunshine Cleaning is a movie about finding victory in failure...about dogged optimism, hard work, and inconfident but hopeful smiles. Rose and Norah's job requires them to scrub away the painful remnants of the past to make room for a brighter, more gleaming future, and that's exactly what we see unfold in their own lives over the course of the film. Sunshine Cleaning is a wonderful movie in every respect, really, and for those who overlooked it during its limited theatrical run, this is a film that's well-worth discovering on Blu-ray. Highly Recommended.
* It looks like the U.S. release is slightly censored, at least compared to a DVD that's made its way somewhere across Europe. A few frames of nudity with Amy Adams have been cropped out on these shores. It's light enough to not be a dealbreaker, but considering that the movie opens with a guy splattering his brains across an outdoorsman store, a quarter-second of nipple seems like kind of an oddball thing to be skittish about. Thanks to Anthony for the heads-up, and comparison shots are available at Land of Whimsy.
If you spot anything in that shot that's not perfect, point the blame squarely at the way I'm making these images: Sunshine Cleaning looks absolutely flawless on Blu-ray. Its scope image is exceptionally crisp and immaculately detailed, bolstered further by robust black levels and a consistently strong sense of depth and dimensionality. The thin veil of grain throughout Sunshine Cleaning is unintrusive but still lends the movie a wonderfully cinematic, natural texture. I'm also impressed by its striking use of color. Reflecting its New Mexico backdrop, much of the movie is bathed in a weathered, sunbaked yellow, but its palette skews to best suit each setting: the bright cotton-candy-pinks as Rose polishes the bedroom of one of her still-living-and-breathing clients and the cold, clinical look to the blood bank where Lynn works, to rattle off two. The only thing even close to a complaint that I could dredge up is some slight shimmer on the grill of the Sunshine Cleaning van, but even that's limited to all of a second and a half in a single shot. Sunshine Cleaning just looks startlingly beautiful in high definition: easily Anchor Bay's best outing on the format to date and further proof that even an indie comedy/drama shot for a few million bucks can rank up there with much of anything else on Blu-ray.
Sunshine Cleaning has been encoded with AVC, and the movie with its handful of extras just barely spill over into the second layer of this BD-50 disc.
Sunshine Cleaning's 24-bit Dolby TrueHD audio is kind of low-key by comparison, but this isn't exactly a movie that screams out for a hypercaffeinated sound design. Dialogue is clearly the focus here, and it's consistently rendered cleanly and clearly throughout. The surround channels are reserved primarily for ambiance: chirping crickets, cars whizzing by, and a little reverb in a pizza joint's bathroom, for instance. The lower-frequencies never really have an excuse to rattle the room but are healthy enough when they need to be, such as reinforcing the crack of a shotgun blast early on. Michael Penn's score maintains a nice presence in the mix as well. This isn't the sort of track where I'm stuck sifting through a thesaurus after running out of other ways to say "amazing!" off the top of my head, but Sunshine Cleaning's lossless audio complements the film well enough and really doesn't leave me with anything to gripe about at all.
Also included are a lossy Spanish dub alongside one subtitle stream in English (SDH) and another in Spanish.
One definite disappointment is that several deleted scenes are mentioned throughout the commentary, including an alternate spin on the finalé, a bit with a car breaking down, a very different subplot with Carl the Competition that was completely chucked out, and a different set of introductions to several of these characters. None of this footage has made its way to Blu-ray, tho'.
Sunshine Cleaning has a BD Live option in the menu, but it doesn't look like the switch has been flipped on for it quite yet.
The Final Word
I'll admit that I waltzed in expecting an aggressively quirky dark comedy, but Sunshine Cleaning balances its sense of humor surprisingly deftly with the character drama that drives the film. Sure, there are a few scattered moments that don't really ring true -- as if it's spent a little too much time thumbing through the Indie Comedy-Slash-Drama Playbook rather than marching to its own beat -- but those are much too sparse to ever come close to dragging the film down. Sunshine Cleaning is just a terrific little movie that's heightened that much more by its stellar cast and cinematography. It's a drag that there aren't more extras, but especially considering just how gorgeous it looks in high-def, Sunshine Cleaning is well-worth seeking out on Blu-ray. Highly Recommended.