Sunshine Cleaning Chizfilm Movie Reviews
April 14, 2009

Two Sisters from Albuquerque Clean Up in “Sunshine Cleaning”

by Jonathan Chisdes

In these difficult financial times, many people are forced to be a bit creative to earn some extra money. Perhaps that’s why the hit of last year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Sunshine Cleaning,” about two women doing just that, is only getting theatrical distribution now, nearly a year-and-a-half later. Shame on the distributors who took so long to release this delightful gem; but if it takes a financial crisis for it to finally make it into theatres, well, at least then we can say one good thing happened because of the bad economy.

“Sunshine Cleaning” tells the story of Rose Lorkowsky (Amy Adams) who used to be the most popular girl in high school, but now in her 30s she’s a struggling single mom making a poor living by cleaning houses of former classmates who have since become far more successful than her. When her seven-year-old son Oscar (Jason Spevack) gets thrown out of public school, she is desperate to find a way to make more money so she can send him to a specialized private school.

Rose’s lover (Steve Zahn), a cop who is married to someone else, mentions in passing that a lot of money can be made in the more-specific field of crime-scene clean-up; Rose jumps at the chance to specialize and enlists the aid of her less-responsible but edgier sister Norah (Emily Blunt). Together they form Sunshine Cleaning, a company which cleans up all the blood, gore, and body-parts after a violent crime has taken place.

But more than a story about making ends meet financially or being grossed out by the messiness of violent death, this utterly charming dramady is a film that looks at issues of family relationships, self-determination, and getting over the past.

There is much humor in the earlier scenes in which Rose and Norah first deal with cleaning up the biohazard waste. As time goes on and they become more comfortable with it, it’s touching to see how tender they can become to relatives of the victims. One of my favorite scenes is an extremely simple one in which the sisters arrive at the home of a woman whose husband just shot himself. The widow is beside herself so Rose just sits next to her and holds her hand. She is in no rush to do her job—the human connection comes first.

Norah, too, is affected by the work. She wonders who these dead people are and at one point actually looks up the deceased woman’s daughter (Mary Lynn Rajskub). They end up as friends and, in one of the most beautiful scenes in the film, the two climb a railroad trellis at night. As the train passes overhead, sparks cascade down in a stunning image.

As it turns out, the cleaning business can be seen as a metaphor for the sisters attempt to clean up all the psychological baggage from their past. They still haven’t quite come to terms with the suicide of their mother, not a character but an ever-present shadow hanging over the film, when they were about Oscars’ age. And Rose is also obsessed with impressing all her old high school friends; now that she’s finally made something of herself by running her own business, she’s eager to attend a high-school-reunion-like baby shower to show off.

New Zealander director Christine Jeffs manages to evoke first class acting from the entire cast. This includes two actors I have yet to mention: Clifton Collins Jr. who plays an amiable, one-armed store owner who befriends Rose, and Alan Arkin who plays the crusty father who always has some goofy get-rich-quick scheme that never seems to work. But of course it’s Amy Adams and Emily Blunt who really shine. There is such great chemistry between these two that you can really believe they are sisters; both manage to evoke great sympathy for their characters.

The movie was shot in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and there are a few glimpses of the beautiful Sandia Mountains, particularly from the Northeastern Heights. I only wish there were more and better shots of those absolutely gorgeous mountains. Still, it’s fun to recognize Albuquerque locations and icons. It could be “Anytown USA” but Albuquerque also has its own unique Southwestern flavor that permeates a number of scenes.

The plot’s a bit predictable, but so what? Screenwriter Megan Holley (whom I heard speak at the Virginia Film Festival where I first saw this movie) has crafted a delightful story about getting your life together, cleaning up the past, and trying, despite all the setbacks, to keep a sunshiny disposition. I think that’s something everyone can relate to. Especially in depressing times.

Actually, now that I think about it, perhaps it’s a good thing that the distributors waited to release this film; maybe we can appreciate it more now than we could a year ago. And if, in this poor economy, you need to make more money, take a tip from the Lorkowsky girls and specialize.

Hmmm… Perhaps I should start specializing too.

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