Glancing at this latest offering from tiny indie production outfit Big Beach Films, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to their 2006 sleeper smash Little Miss Sunshine. From the comically misleading title, through the estranged siblings, to Alan Arkin acting as the blunt sage to a troubled, precocious child, the similarities are unmistakable. But earnest, committed performances from an all round stellar ensemble headed up by two young women destined for mega-stardom mean this is far from just a cheap imitation.
Yes, it does look like you’re garden variety Sundance movie (where it was unsurprisingly nominated for a Grand Jury Prize); the Anywheresville Midwestern setting (specifically Albuquerque); the acoustic indie soundtrack; familial dysfunction – a distilled amalgamation of every “colorfully quirky” indie you’ve ever seen. The film makes no bones about its intentions, announcing itself in an opening scene that sees a gentleman enter a sporting goods outlet, polite ask to inspect the 20 gauge in the display case, insert a shell from his pocket into the chamber, and promptly splatter his brains all over the store. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a black comedy. But beneath the wearily hip veneer is a deceptively simple ballad of decent, ordinary folk trying to do the best with what they’ve got, that unlike many of its kin is thoroughly unpretentious and that earns our appreciation rather than demanding it.
Amy Adams is the elder sister Rose, once the belle of the high school, now an overburdened single mom and maid, who despite her can-do attitude watches her former classmate neighbors reap success while she looks on at life from the sidelines. Juggling her son and her job with a little by-the-hour intimacy with her now married high school sweetheart Adams imbues Rose with a guarded vulnerability that singles her out as an actress to watch. Emily Blunt is the black sheep younger sibling; a directionless, sassy ne’er-do-well living in their dad’s spare room who has never quite gotten over their mother’s untimely death. When Rose’s son Oscar is kicked out of school (he licks things), she hits on the idea of turning her mobile maid service into a crime scene clean-up operation and ropes a reluctant Norah into helping. Reffing these two is Alan Arkin as the father, Joe, virtually indistinguishable from his Little Miss role, who takes his troubled grandson Oscar under his wing and encourages him to keep dreaming.
That’s really at its essence what Sunshine Cleaning is all about – it’s about dreams. It’s a post coming-of-age parable that simply asks: where to now? Once your dreams are gone what do you do? What do you actually have? Debut scripter Megan Holly crams the film with contrasts; Rose, having just finished another round of cleaning another of her more successful former classmates houses clutches Oscar – a symbol of unlimited potential – and quietly reassures him as he asks if the van’s CB radio can reach heaven? Granddad Joe, despite advancing years still chases get-rich-quick schemes with the naïve enthusiasm of a teenager. Norah, despite her many friends and party lifestyle is the most miserable of the lot, but lacks her sister’s guile to take the reigns of her life.
Of course, this being a film about cleaning up disgusting bodily fluids there is the requisite cruel slapstick and witty banter. But the comedy plays a well-judged second fiddle to the earnest emotion emanating from the two leads. These women are desperately unhappy, but they have to believe that they have the power to make things better; “Do you think they loved each other?” Norah enquires somblerly as they prepare to tackle a huge bloodstain at the scene of a murder/suicide. “Yes,” Rose answers, assuredly.
Occasionally there are moments of symbolism that are just a tad on the nose; Clifton Collins Jr. has a supporting role as the owner of a supplies store Rose befriends and his hobby is building model planes – except he’s only got one arm. Life’s a struggle. We get it. But moments like that aside Sunshine Cleaning is just a genuinely affecting movie about family and about making your way. It’s about people whose lives didn’t work out the way they hoped they would – and hey, most of us can definitely relate.
Starring: Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jason Spevack, Clifton Collins Jr.
Director: Christine Jeffs
Runtime: 102 Minutes
Distributor: Overture Films