Sunshine Cleaning

Sunshine Cleaning is the best small movie so far this year. A wonderful, quirky story by first-time scribe Megan Holley that at first seems simple and direct and then reveals itself as complex and deeply layered. Sure-handed direction by relatively unknown New-Zealand director, Christine Jeffs (Sylvia), who handles the big action scenes with just as much aplomb as the quiet, intimate ones. Taking the film to the highest level are the two luminous performances by Amy Adams and Emily Blunt.

Just in case you thought a movie made by women, about women, and starring two women would be a one of those films you can dismiss as a “chick-flick,” I’ve got news for you. My husband, Mr. Macho Man, loved this movie. And so did Ken Hanke at the Mountain Xpress. As movie goers in Asheville know, Mr. Hanke and I rarely agree on movies–that we did on this one is a tribute to how universal the movie’s appeal is.

There’s a lively debate going on among people who like this movie–who stole it? Either Amy Adams, the lovely redhead who enchanted us all with her two Oscar-nominated roles in Junebug and Doubt? Or brunette Emily Blunt who knocked everyone’s socks off with her off-the-wall performance as Meryl Streep’s assistant in The Devil Wore Prada? I can settle the argument–they were both terrific. The screen shined when either was on it, and when both were on together, it dazzled. My prediction: Adams and Blunt will become the leading actresses of their generation and some day Sunshine Cleaning will become a cult film for showcasing both women in their early years.

Albuquerque seems to be a dry, dead-end town for the two struggling Lorkowski sisters. Rose (Amy Adams) was the “It Girl” in high school, but nine years later, she’s a single Mom, still involved with her old boyfriend, Mac (Steve Zahn, The Great Buck Howard), who’s now a very-married cop. Rose struggles mightily to create a good life for her son, Oscar (TV actor Jason Spevack) but with no husband and no further education, the future is bleak. Norah (Emily Blunt) still lives at home with their irascible father Joe (Alan Arkin, Rendition) and can’t seem to hold onto a job. Drinking too much and taking drugs don’t help her resume. None of the Lorkowskis ever really talk about the family’s dark secret–the suicide of the girls’ mother that left all three of them with a big hole that’s never been recognized, much less filled.

Things come to a head when Oscar gets kicked out of public school for behavior that is totally hilarious but disconcerting to education bureaucrats. Rose’s small home cleaning business will never pay for a private education. So when her cop boyfriend suggests she go into the high-income crime scene cleanup business, Rose jumps at the suggestion. She wheedles a very reluctant Norah into joining her. At first, it’s pretty disgusting work. Homicides, suicides, decomposed bodies. Brains and blood and body fluids all over the place–eeeyew–but with masks, some biohazard training and lots of determination, the Sunshine Cleaning business starts making a profit.

The two entrepreneurs surprise themselves by realizing that their work is important and valuable. Rose sees herself as bringing order into people’s lives at a time when everything has turned to chaos. At one house where an elderly woman has died alone, Norah finds mementoes of the woman’s daughter, Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub, TV’s 24). She tracks the daughter down and a difficult but life-changing friendship begins. In the meantime, Rose becomes friendly with the shy owner of the cleaning supplies store, Winston (Clifton Collins Jr., Star Trek).

Everything’s going great and with a lot of laughs until–of course–disaster strikes. I can’t tell you how upset I was at this plot point. These young women were so plucky, so needy, so darn worthy of having their bad choices in life get turned around, I couldn’t stand anything but an immediate trajectory to “they lived happily ever after.” Thank goodness I knew it was a comedy so I forestalled weeping, knowing that the story eventually had to end well. And it did, but in a way that–because this was a wonderful movie–wasn’t predictable.

Charming, uplifting, thoughtful, sad and very funny, too–Sunshine Cleaning is a tiny gem. You owe it to yourself to see it right away.

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