April 9, 2009

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Sunshine Cleaning (R)
Amy Adams and Emily Blunt play two different flavors of women with problems in Sunshine Cleaning, a sweet if a bit slight dramady.

Rose (Amy Adams) is a woman in need of a little spine-stiffening. She works cleaning houses while she very half-heartedly considers a career in real estate. But mostly, she pines for Mac (Steve Zahn), her high school boyfriend who is now a police officer and is married to another woman. Married married — married, with kids and a nicer house than Rose lives in and another kid on the way. Though Rose never says it, we get the sense that she is clinging desperately to the hope that Mac will eventually leave his wife for her. The insinuation is that she’s had this relationship with him for a long while; after all, Rose’s son Oscar (Jason Spevack), whose father is unidentified, is eight years old.

Eight years old and a bit of a troublemaker. After Oscar gets in trouble at school for licking things — the result of a horror story told to him by Rose’s irresponsible sister Norah (Blunt) — Rose is stuck trying to figure out how to raise the money to send Oscar to private school. Mac doesn’t offer cash but he does offer advice — he’s noticed that the guys who come in after crimes and clean up the blood, guts and other evidence make a lot of money. He suggests Rose give it a try. Rose asks Norah, who recently, dramatically quit her job, to lend a hand and the women set out to build their business, Sunshine Cleaning.

As this week’s cover story suggests, starting a business is never easy, and Rose has to learn the rules of her trade. But this entrepreneurship gives her a sense of her own worth that she’s never had before. It’s heartbreaking and joyful at the same time to watch a person who starts the movie sadly reciting self-affirmations into a mirror find internal strength. (The movie doesn’t dwell on matters of money and class but it does touch on them just enough to make you wish it wanted to say more things about Rose and Norah’s socioeconomic status.)

Sunshine Cleaning is directed by the same woman who directed Little Miss Sunshine and shares not only a word in the title but a supporting cast member in Alan Arkin, who plays Rose and Norah’s father. It has a similar blend of personal tragedy, dry humor and quirky grittiness, but Sunshine Cleaning isn’t quite as boisterous or as loveable as Little Miss Sunshine. It feels thin and not quite fully realized. It’s as though it needs one more revision to really bring it to life (or one less to keep in some much needed tartness and sharp edges).

Though the movie feels a bit underbaked, it doesn’t get in the way of Blunt and Adams bringing strong, winning performances (complete with some very nice sister chemistry). They both give layers to the characters, adding moments of childishness and maturity and self-awareness with just a look or a gesture that help make them seem like fully dimensional flawed people.

Arkin is, roughly, the same character he was in Little Miss Sunshine with the pursuit of the absurd business deal replacing that grandpa’s lust for heroin. His effect on the movie is ultimately neutral — he’s neither as off-puttingly quirky or as winningly charming as you’d fear/hope. But he is an example of how the movie uses a kind of shorthand to get through some parts of the story without fully building the layers of a character or a scene.

Sunshine Cleaning won’t be chasing the big belly-laughing boy-comedies out of the theater any time soon but it is a welcome ray of lightness. B-

Rated R for language, disturbing images, some sexuality and drug use. Directed by Christine Jeffs and written by Megan Holley, Sunshine Cleaning is an hour and 42 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Overture Films. Locally, it is currently playing at Red River Theatres in Concord and the AMC at the Loop in Methuen, Mass.