The trick is in the casting, director John Huston used to say. But he neglected to add that timing is everything. New Zealander Christine Jeffs (Sylvia) certainly hit lucky with her two leads here. Both were promising up and comers two and a half years ago when they signed up for this independently financed, mid-budget comedy drama, but Amy Adams and Emily Blunt have gone on to bigger and still bigger things, making Sunshine Cleaning, if not quite a must-see, then at least a popular item on the rental queue lists.
It’s timely in other ways too. In January 08, when Sunshine Cleaning premiered at the Sundance Film Festival it was widely patronized as yet another quirky US indie following hard on the heels of Little Miss Sunshine. Not only does it share a word in the title, and an actor, it even comes from the same production outfit.
Eighteen months later, now the wheels have come off the global economy, this tale of two sisters joining forces to dig themselves out of hard times feels a lot more relevant.
Between them, Rose (Adams) and Norah (Blunt) struggle with menial jobs and periods of unemployment, with solo parenting (Rose) and solo everything else (Norah). Together, they’re also coping with the nasty emotional residue of their mom’s long-ago suicide – a trauma which is likely responsible for their current troubles. Self-esteem isn’t a strong point for either of them.
As Sunshine Cleaning dawns they’re both scraping by. If Norah is out of work before we’ve settled into our popcorn she’s not overly concerned by her situation, so nor are we. Rose, on the other hand, is desperate to graduate from cleaning other people’s middle-class homes. It’s not just that the humiliation of laundering for her old school friends is getting her down; she needs the money to put her “difficult” kid into the kind of school that will give him a chance.
It’s Rose’s married boyfriend – and old high school sweetheart – Mac (Steve Zahn) who spies a new niche. A homicide detective, he’s watching the cleaning crew bag the blown brains of a shotgun enthusiast when he overhears the proprietor of the building grousing about the three grand this is costing him. Granted, blood and intestinal juices aren’t everybody’s cup of tea, but that kind of return sure beats washing Mrs Johansson’s curtains for $30 an hour.
CSM: Crime Scene Maid. This isn’t a job you’re likely to find down at the employment office, but somebody must be doing the dirty work. Rose and Norah – incorporated – find that the stench takes some getting used to, and there’s a whole new arsenal of cleaning fluids to master, but they set-to with a positive attitude and like to think they’re doing their bit to put the world to rights.
From this unusual set up the movie might have skewed in any number of ways… The sisters might have uncovered evidence of corruption and murder, for instance, perhaps implicating Mac?
Written by Megan Holley, Sunshine Cleaning is nowhere near so abrasive or generic. Instead it puts a sympathetic, gentle comic gloss on the characters’ fundamentally forgivable foibles and imperfections.
Norah tracks down the daughter of one suicide (Mary Lynn Rajskub) to present her with mementos that should have been destined for the junkyard – and sheepishly ends up befriending her instead. Is it sexual, or is she projecting her own family angst? Emily Blunt’s edgy performance keeps us guessing. Norah’s a bit of a flake, but she’s animated by her anger and her rebellious streak.
Rose is easier to understand. She’s determined to seize this chance to dig herself out of the hole and recapture the promise she used to see in herself. Adams has a knack for putting a brave face on things – something about the way she tilts her chin up while her mouth goes in three directions at once. She keeps our rooting interest in Rose alive even when her choices seem misguided or na´ve.
A subplot concerning Rose’s son bonding with Joe (Alan Arkin), the sisters’ loveable but infuriating father (you know the kind: he buys bulk orders of shrimp off the back of a lorry) tips us too far into the realms of quirk, perhaps. The character is useful, and an amusing grouch, but it’s just about impossible to imagine this man bringing up these girls.
Ironically, for a movie that was marketed in the US with the one-liner “Life’s a messy business”, Holley’s script has been polished to within an inch of its life. Emotions are experienced most vividly when they’re raw, but in Sunshine Cleaning feelings come filtered through neat-and-tidy grace notes. The film flirts with dangerous material but it’s too intent on putting the sunny side up to get its hands dirty. The way Jeffs tells it, not only is suicide painless it can be positively feel-good.
That’s too easy for real life, but right now feel-good will feel just fine to a lot of people.
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