“Little Miss Sunshine”, SUNSHINE CLEANING. Don’t get confused by the two but be forewarned that the parallels between these two films start from the get-go; not the least of which are the dark blend of comedy, Alan Arkin, an adorable kid, a dysfunctional family, the same producing team that brought us “Little Miss Sunshine” and let’s face it, fun, charm and that irrepressible adorable factor thanks to Amy Adams and Emily Blunt.
As sisters, Rose and Norah Lorkowski are as different as different can be yet both are amazingly similar. Neither can find a good man or a good relationship for that matter. Both are passionate – Rose about making a better life and being happy and Norah about smoking pot, sleeping all day in her room at home with Dad and bouncing from one scut job to the next. Already divorced and left to raise a young son on her own, Rose is having an affair with the hot married local homicide detective, Mac, who insists he is leaving his wife at any moment. Their trysts are always at the local no-tell-motel but in a small New Mexico town, telling seems to be the M.O. Positive and upbeat she is the poster child for Tony Robbins or Robert Schuller and their beliefs in the power of positive thinking. Former cheerleader, homecoming queen and the girl voted most likely to have it all (including the quarterback), Rose now works as a maid, yet constantly yearns for a better life for herself and her 7 year old son Oscar; a desire that really hits home when she finds herself cleaning the home of a former school mate who is the one that now does “have it all.” Adding to Rose’s hardships is Oscar, who is more than a bit quirky and finds himself getting kicked out of public school as it is deemed he needs “special attention.” (So, he licked the teacher’s leg and tried to flush a sandwich down the toilet.) On the other hand, black and blue haired Norah parties hearty, has no sense of responsibility and doesn’t want any. In fact, Norah doesn’t know what she wants. Still living at home with their dad, Joe, she sleeps until noon or 2 or 3 or 5 and loses every job she gets.
And then there’s Joe, a man that still considers himself vital and looking for that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. A champion hustler, Joe knows he’s just one scheme away from financial riches be it selling candied popcorn or shrimp from the trunk of his car. But the one thing Joe never hustles is his love for his girls and his grandson – although the girls might not always look at things that way.
Forced to find a way to make money to pay for a private school for Oscar, at Mac’s suggestion, Rose jumps into the world of crime scene clean-up; just like cleaning a house only with some blood, guts and brain spatter. The good news is that not only is there minimal competition, but Mac can tip her off to new jobs. The bad news is that Rose has no idea what toxic clean-up involves. But Rose looks at this job and the grim situations that bring her work with the same cheeriness and positive affirmation as she views her everyday life.
Rolling up her sleeves and diving in head first, Rose looks at this as a “growth industry” and sees not only the potential for this being her pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but something for Norah as well. Of course, every job is a two person job and when you have an unemployed sister at your disposal, why not bring her in – you just have to get Norah over her squeemishness at the sight of blood. Unskilled and unaware of the intricacies of this highly specialized work, Rose is befriended by Winston, the one-armed owner of the local cleaning supply store. Helping her at every turn, he is a shining light to not only Rose but Oscar as well.
As we watch the dysfunction of the Lorkowskis unfold, we see characters develop and mature amidst the most trying and disastrous of circumstances no matter what life throws at them (even Norah torching a house while saving a lost little cat). We also see the love that binds them and the past that has pulled them apart for so long. We see the sunny side of life through their laughter. And we see what life ultimately holds for each of them.
Amy Adams is a delight as Rose. Her patented upbeat princess persona simply shines. She is irresistible and as Rose, even inspirational. Emily Blunt is pure perfection as put-upon Norah. She is truly one of the finest comedic actresses of the day and doesn’t waste a bit of screen time proving that fact time and time and again. But, as impeccable as her delivery is, her facial expressiveness speaks volumes in every scene. Blunt is a prime example of actions speaks louder than words. And the chemistry between Blunt and Adams is to die for – dynamic, funny and fresh at every turn.
Alan Arkin does his utmost best to “recreate” his role from “Little Miss Sunshine.” Playing the money angle, hustling, scamming patriarch, his performance is endearing but nothing new. One of the most under-rated roles in this film is that of Winston, played by Clifton Collins Jr. He not only brings heart to every situation, but brings out the best in each character with whom he interacts, particularly his scenes with Adams. I would like to see these two paired again in the future as there is an electricity between them that just lights up the screen. Disappointingly, his screen time is minimal and I have the distinct sense many of his scenes landed on the cutting room floor as there are gaping holes in his storyline. Steve Zahn also garners a laugh or two as the perpetually horny detective Mac, although again, his talent is wasted with minimal time and a one-dimensional character. A true supporting standout is Mary Lynn Rajskub, another alumni of “Little Miss Sunshine.” Always entertaining and enjoyable, Rajskub is probably best known for her work as Reena in “Legally Blonde 2″ and Chloe in “24.” Here, as Lynn, she retains her patented shy demeanor but adds a standoffish stiff attitude with calculated nuanced subtleties to the performance. Only interacting with Blunt, their dynamic adds an entirely new and unexpected layer to the film.
It’s hard to believe that SUNSHINE CLEANING is compliments of a first-time screenwriter. Megan Holley has some extremely well crafted characters intertwined in a story premise that is not only funny but that has a poignancy and charm that adds an inescapable sweetness to the film. There are moments that just tug on your heartstrings. Unfortunately, there are quite a few loose ends, most notably those involving Rose and Winston as well as a sub-plot between Norah and Lynn, the daughter of an elderly dead woman.
Director Christine Jeffs does an admirable job of balancing the darkness of the story with the comedic undertones, although there is more drama that comedy and there are instances that fall flat with continuity and rhythm momentarily lost. Most impressive, though, is that neither Jeffs nor screenwriter Holley ever minimize or trivialize the deaths that give rise to the entire story and treat each with respect and purpose. Jeffs pays great attention to detail which adds to the quirkiness and charm of the film. Shot on location in and around Albuquerque, the small town feel provides a comforting sincerity. Cinematographer John Toon, who worked with Jeffs on “Sylvia” does a fine job given the extremely varied locales and death scenarios presenting their own unique lighting and lensing demands.
Despite it’s cloudy undertones, SUNSHINE CLEANING will bring a ray of sunshine to even the darkest day.
Rose – Amy Adams
Norah – Emily Blunt
Joe – Alan Arkin
Winston – Clifton Collins, Jr.
Directed by Christine Jeffs. Written by Megan Holley.