A Film Review Blog

My Photo
Location: Dallas, TX
We Have A Mailing List! Subscribe Here!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning (2009)

I have a major girl crush on both Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, so it wasn't hard to sell me on Sunshine Cleaning, a lightweight dramady about a pair of sisters who start their own crime-scene cleanup service. Adams plays Rose, a single mom and former high school cheerleading captain whose life is not unfolding as she had planned. She works as a maid and is still having an affair with her high school sweetheart (Steve Zahn) who is the father of her son, and who happens to be married to another woman. Her sister Norah (Blunt) is a slacker who can't do anything right and who still acts like a fifteen-year-old. Their father is played with a mix of bittersweet humor and weary grit by Alan Arkin. Both sisters (as well as their father) are still grieving over the suicide of their mother some twenty years prior. When Rose gets a chance to switch from dusting to mopping up blood, she leaps at the highly lucrative chance. Soon her sister joins her and the two learn all about biohazard disposal with the assistance of Winston (Clifton Collins Jr) the one-armed cleaning supplies salesman.

This might not sound like a great opportunity for comedy, but the film's light script, upbeat performances and bright, saturated colors make it all work. It's also, surprisingly, not the precious and twee indie comedy it could have been. Suitable weight is given to the themes of death and loss, and Adams and Blunt have enough acting chops to make their characters seem like real individuals. So often films hold up the fading prom queens of the world for laughs and mockery, but this film provides Rose with vulnerability and depth. The director, New Zealander Christine Jeffs, hasn't done much yet; she directed the 2003 film Sylvia about the life of Sylvia Plath, as well as the 2003 family drama Rain. In Sunshine Cleaning, however, she shows a lot of promise as an up-and-coming director, showing a deft comedic touch for serious subject matter without glossing anything over. In addition, I was impressed by the cinematography of John Toon (Broken English, 1996). One scene in particular, featuring Blunt beneath a railroad bridge, is so beautifully photographed that it alone makes the entire film worth seeing.

On the downside, the film has pacing problems, with an ending that feels a bit rushed and tacked on. I was sometimes distracted by the abundant use of handheld camera, but it's clear that Jeffs wants her audience to feel as though we are in the lives of the characters. Finally, there is the slightly clunky metaphor of cleaning up after the dead, an activity that both women are psychologically unable to do with respect to their own mother. Jeffs' overuse of flashbacks to remind us of the parallels between cleaning out dead people's houses and letting go of mom's memories beats the horse to death, but I'm willing to forgive it in light of the film's overall quality.