Sunshine Cleaning

Sunshine Cleaning

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Reviewed by: The Exile

Another low-class family is offered up for middlebrow consumption in Sunshine Cleaning, the latest product to fall off the quirky-indie conveyor belt and land in the arthouse with a muffled thud. Shamelessly scavenged from the template of that other Sundance movie with “sunshine” in the title, Alan Arkin in the back room and a cute little kid in tow (both films share the same producers), Cleaning also shares a New Mexico location and laboured metaphors for loss and dysfunction. Its opening will probably incite a silver-hair stampede.

Not that this written-by-numbers (and first-timer Megan Holley) tale of two sisters has nothing to recommend it. Both Amy Adams and Emily Blunt bring considerable energy and inarguable talent to their roles as the troubled siblings, even if their troubles are mostly of their own making. Older sister Rose (Adams), a striving single mother who cleans houses for a living (does no one even think about contraception in these movies?), relies on daily recitations of Post-It affirmations to buck her spirits. Lord knows they need bucking: a former cheerleader stuck in a going-nowhere affair with her high-school sweetheart-turned-married cop (Steve Zahn), Rose worries that her seven-year-old son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), needs the expensive attentions of a private school. He likes to lick things, you see - especially his teacher.

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Meanwhile younger sister Norah (Blunt), a melancholy punk abusing herself with casual sex and pointless tattoos, is also treading water. Haunted by the long-ago suicide of their mother, Norah lives with their cranky father (Arkin, recycling his cranky-old-fogey routine) and enables his delusional moneymaking schemes. But when Rose’s lover suggests crime-scene clean-up might offer a more lucrative career than the realtor’s license she currently covets (wise advice, on today’s evidence), the sisters’ emotional issues are clumsily rendered corporeal: sluicing away human remains is much easier than disinfecting their own heads.

While nothing about this profession-as-healing metaphor rings remotely true - who sets out to tackle a bloodbath with nothing but rubber gloves, a spray bottle and a toothbrush? - Sunshine Cleaning feeds off its two leads with desperate diligence. New Zealand director Christine Jeffs, who, in dramas like Rain and Sylvia, showed real empathy for becalmed women, is less comfortable with comedy and the imposed rhythms of a screenplay engineered to appeal to a preordained audience. So while Adams and Blunt scrabble for subtext and a depth that simply isn’t there, the movie congeals around them as remorselessly as the toxic sludge they’re paid to remove.

All of which would be much more tedious without a pair of subplots that, though weakly written, are enriched by two of the finest character actors working today. Mary Lynn Rajskub, proving she can reach far beyond Fox’s 24, is wonderful as a lonely blood-donor technician whom Norah suspects may be related to the victim of one of their clean-ups. And Clifton Collins Jr (so terrific as the killer in Capote) is charming here as a one-armed cleaning-supplies salesman drawn to Rose’s desperate perkiness. When these actors are on screen, the movie slips the bonds of formula and we forget we’re being manipulated; for those brief moments, we care.

Reviewed on: 14 Apr 2009
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Two sisters try to forge a career in crime scene clean-up.
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Director: Christine Jeffs

Writer: Megan Holley

Starring: Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Steve Zahn, Alan Arkin, Jason Spevack, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Clifton Collins Jr

Year: 2008

Runtime: 91 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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Sundance 2008

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