Sunshine Cleaning

Sunshine Cleaning (2008): United States – directed by Christine Jeffs

Rated R by the MPAA – contains some bad language, disturbing images and themes, and some sexual content

Sunshine Cleaning was marketed to be the next quirky independent comedy, like Little Miss Sunshine, with an offbeat plot and odd characters.  Alan Arkin even returns as a grumpy grandfather with lots of crazy ways to make money.  But no matter how eccentric Arkin is, Amy Adams and a quirky plot will be the film’s primary draws.

The marketing may have been a bit off.  Sunshine Cleaning does indeed have a quirky plot and odd characters, even if it doesn’t coalesce into something as enjoyable as Little Miss Sunshine.  Two sisters (Adams and Emily Blunt) are down on their luck, unable to make their own way in the world.  Their last resort involves starting a crime scene cleaning service, where they clean the blood and brains off of suicide and murder scenes.  The basic premise sounds like it could provide the quirky and funny moments that the trailers depict, and the film delivers most of the time, even if some of the best moments were showcased in the trailers.  The remainder of the film is filled with crying and emotions; not exactly what you include when marketing an independent comedy.

It’s interesting to note that a woman (Megan Holley) wrote the film and another (Christine Jeffs) directed it.  Rarely do you find a film written and directed by two different women, for whatever reason.  Sunshine Cleaning includes a great number of woman-related themes; mother-daughter relationships are important to numerous characters, the two sisters have their own bickerings to deal with and help each other through, and the issue of being a single mother is examined.  Because of this there are a number of emotional scenes, and much crying is involved.  It doesn’t help that Rose Lorkowski (Adams) has a cute son who’s a bit too imaginative for school and has his own issues to deal with.

Rose has been struggling for some time to find and maintain her place in the world.  She’s having an affair with her high school sweetheart (Steve Zahn): he was the team quarterback, she the head cheerleader.  He eventually married another girl but they still see each other in a seedy hotel room.  Rose’s meetings with his wife grow more awkward and dangerous as the film progresses.  At the same time Rose tries to keep her son busy.  School is not fond of him (and vice versa), and about the only person she can turn to is her father, Joe (Arkin).

Joe provides a great deal of the film’s humor, always promising his grandson things he can’t deliver and attempting to back up his promises with shady money-making schemes.  At one point he buys a great deal of shrimp from the back of an 18-wheeler and attempts to sell it to Mexican restaurants.  Another side business involves selling candy to candy shops from the trunk of his car.

Joe’s humor balances the emotional aspects of the film, though the focus remains on Rose’s struggle to succeed in life.  There are other touching moments, one involving a one-armed cleaning supply store owner (Clifton Collins Jr.).  The film treats his character as tenderly as any film involving a one-armed person.  There are also other humorous scenes, many of which involve the two sisters struggling to keep down their lunches while cleaning up grisly crime scenes.

Sunshine Cleaning is enjoyable but doesn’t cohere as well as it might have.  Some plot threads are left hanging while others are resolved too quickly.  Some of the relational aspects seem a bit contrived, as though the film is trying to be quirky for quirkiness’s sake.  Overall, the movie comes off as a slight and slightly fluffy indy film.  This isn’t a bad thing, as it tends to be fairly enjoyable.  Those searching out films with a distinctive independent flair won’t be dissapointed.

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