A Review of Christine Jeffs’ “Sunshine Cleaning”

Amy Adams and Emily Blunt pick up supplies to clean the dead bodies out of Americas multiplexes.

Amy Adams and Emily Blunt pick up supplies to clean the stench of bad films out of America's multiplexes.

A Blunt Ray of Sunshine through the Darkness, 22 March 2009
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

A struggling single mom named Rose (Amy Adams in her comedy/drama wheelhouse) gets tired of working for a maid service and boldly decides to branch out into crime scene clean-up with her lay-about sister Norah (Emily Blunt, ironically named) in Christine Jeffs’ observant and easy-going Sunshine Cleaning.

Although it has been marketed as one of those quirky dramedies the studios love to shove down our throats every year, Jeffs’ film (from a solid screenplay from Megan Holley) is more in tune with somber yet hopeful indie character studies. The film deals with some dark subject matter and poignantly explores grief and family dysfunction but maintains a positive outlook and contains some solid situational laughs. The combination of an interesting set-up, smart writing, likable characters and winning performances make the film, even when it teeter-totters from dark to sappy, go down smooth. None of the characters seem forced upon us, unlike the overtly quirky family from Little Miss Sunshine or the stylized dialog spewing teens from Juno. These characters talk and interact like real people and there’s a naturalism in the way their relationships develop.

It makes for engaged viewing when a film like this doesn’t feel the need to explain every detail or tie up every loose end so nicely. Some subplots involving Norah taking a personal interest in one of the clean-up jobs that leads to an awkward friendship with a blood-bank worker (Mary Lynn Rajskub of 24 fame) or a one-armed supply store guy (Clifton Collins Jr.) who takes a shine to Rose aren’t resolved in a typical fashion, and some things are never made known or left open-ended. It makes the film feel truer to life. Even when Rose’s precocious kid (Jason Spevack) tries to talk to heaven on a CB radio in what would normally be considered a contrived and cutesy moment, you feel like you’ve grown to know the character and it’s just something he would do. Likewise, Alan Arkin as the sisters’ scheming entrepreneurial father behaves and acts like a real guy who’s had to struggle raising two girls alone and is just trying to help them catch a break.

Amy Adams, of course, is an absolute delight.  (An earlier ode to Ms. Adams can be read here.) Something about her girl-next-door good looks combined with her innate talents as a comedienne and her theatrical background that produces some of the best facial expressions and crying-on-cue you’ll ever see make her the perfect choice for this type of role. While it’s easy to sing the praises of Adams, and she’s never been more endearing or relatable than here, Emily Blunt proves to be an excellent foil. It’s Blunt’s sharp portrayal and her character’s story arc that provide the film its emotional weight. Both actresses deserve to be remembered come awards season, and Sunshine Cleaning is that rare spring-time bird: a film worthy of buzz.

Originally published on the Internet Movie Database.

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2 comments on “A Review of Christine Jeffs’ “Sunshine Cleaning”

  1. Sam Juliano says:

    “The film deals with some dark subject matter and poignantly explores grief and family dysfunction but maintains a positive outlook and contains some solid situational laughs.”

    That sentence pretty much sizes this one up, especially for those who are under the impression it’s mainly a light, insubstantial breezy comedy. Great to hear from you about both Amy Adams and Emily Blunt. Adams is surely in her element, as you contend here. I was in the multiplex all weekend, but despite expectations, I didn’t get to this yet, having to settle for the likes of “Duplicity” and “Knowing,” neither of which is worth writing home about. However both “Two Lovers” and “Sin Nombre” were worthwhile.

    Great review here, IMD is lucky to have it.

    Sam, yes, I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of Sunshine Cleaning in both the writing and the performances. It’s one of those films that could be easily dismissed or misjudged as just some “quirky dramedy”, but there’s many small moments from it I was left thinking about today, and it was far better directed and thoughtful than most films of this ilk. I highly recommend it. –DHS

  2. ellie says:

    movie was good but i almost left the theater when they referred to the special needs children as “the retards”. This term has been eliminated from our vocabulary because it is very offensive. The writer and director need to be more sensative.They are our most vulnerable population and do not have a voice. What or who is left to make fun of, right?

    Ellie, I honestly don’t recall that scene or line…but I can see how a person could be very offended by it. As a writer who often struggles with what some people may find offensive or not, I have to cut filmmakers and other writers some slack when they use terms like that. As long as the context of it is not mean-spirited and is true to the nature of the characters (I can see members of that family using that term jokingly, even if it is very insensitive) then I don’t have much issue with it. I do agree that writers and directors do have to be aware of who they might be harming though when using such terms or making such jokes. –DHS

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