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Sunshine Cleaning

Sunshine Cleaning opens with perfectly composed images of desperation. Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) is a maid and her sister Norah (Emily Blunt) is a waitress, and neither one is in a happy place right at the moment. Filmmaker Christine Jeffs uses slow motion shots of each woman - Rose's shot captures her quiet, contained desperation whereas Norah's shot show her in a raging huff of desperation as she quits her job. Each one's situation reveals a slightly different tone but we immediately sense that they need to make changes in their lives and those changes better happen soon. Jeffs finds the perfect emotional pitch in these simple shots sothat we have all that we need to know about the current situation of these women and can empatize with them.

The loving but slightly dysfunctional Lorkowski family in Sunshine Cleaning (Overture)

To elaborate: Rose is single mom who's having an affair with a married man (Steve Zahn) who keeps promising to divorce his wife. Rose works for a maid service but finds herself financially challenged when she decides to put her son Oscar (Jason Spevack) in a private school. Rose once felt like she had a bright future. She was a popular cheerleader in high school where she dated the star quarterback. But high school popularity hasn't translated into real world success. But then she hasn't had great role models either. Her father Joe (Alan Arkin) is a salesman with a knack for failed get rich quick ventures, and her younger sister Norah still lives at home. But Rose has a get rich - or at least get financially better off - scheme of her own. She discovers that people who clean up a police crime scenes get paid a much heftier sum than maids get for cleaning a house so she decides to set up her own crime scene clean up. She enlists her sister's help as well as the good will of a local merchant (Clifton Collins, Jr., superb and almost unrecognizable as the bespectacled, one-armed Winston). But can Rose juggle single parenthood, a need to impress old high school acquaintances, an aging dad, a flaky sister and messy crime scenes?

Sunshine Cleaning is lighter fare from New Zealand director Christine Jeffs who previously dealt with a troubled teen in Rain and a suicidal poet in Sylvia. Jeffs reveals a relaxed approach in dealing with her characters. She gives them plenty of room and time to develop. She aided by a talented cast. Adams proves once again that she can be sweet and adorable without being saccharine or annoying. As in Junebug, she's able to create a character that tries to be positive and cheery despite sometimes trying circumstances. The key is that she keeps her character rooted in the real world. Blunt's flakiness as Noah plays nicely off of Rose's responsibility. We buy into their relationship as sisters. Arkin also enhances the film with his endearing performance as Joe, a father who genuinely loves his daughters but who has failed to provide them with the kind of parental guidance and stability that they needed growing up. Together they form a somewhat dysfunctional family but one bound together by love.

Clifton Collins, Jr. tries to help Amy Adams in Sunshine Cleaning (Overture)

For about half of the film, Jeffs and screenwriter Megan Holly keep the film zipping along. The characters feel fresh and the backdrop of crime scene clean up is well used. They make good use of the contrast between Rose's cheery outlook and the grisly crime scenes. I couldn't help but think of her in Enchanted and I half expected her to call upon some cute furry animals to help her mop up the blood -- that's the kind of positive spin Rose tries to put on everything. And Adams is an actress who can selll that kind of attitude on film. Her Rose is a kindred spirit (although not nearly as extreme) to the character played by Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky.

But then the filmmakers feel the need to manipulate the plot and the characters to rush the story along and force the characters to make some life-changing decision. This pivotal moment involves a crime scene clean up that goes awry and causes the sisters to fight and to bring old feelings, frustrations, and anger to the surface. But while everything that came earlier flowed naturally and smoothly, this contrived plot turn feels forced and requires the characters to act, well, out of character. Everything that the filmmakers wanted to achieve in terms of character development could have been achieved in a much quieter and more credible fashion.

Amy Adams and Emily Blunt reacting to their new job in Sunshine Cleaning (Overture)

The film also suffers a bit from the amazing disappearing child act, in which characters are given children that conveniently appear and disappear according to the needs of the script. Oscar exists to create the need for Rose to change jobs and then he's pulled out of school so the petty, mundane need to drop him off and pick him up won't interfere with the story. And when he does get in the way he can be conveniently left with grandpa or even dumped with storeowner Winston (thus also proving the "cute" means of placing Winston on Rose's romantic radar). Fortunately, Oscar is also developed to a certain degree as a likable character with real issues of his own (he's the bright kid who's bored by school) so we can tolerate his occasional disappearance from the narrative. Jeffs and Holly also fall victim to some clich es (mostly involving Rose's married lover and her ditzy high school alumni) but it's the honesty of their characters that makes the film rise above those narrative shortcuts. Fortunately, the occasional missteps are by no means fatal and Sunshine Cleaning recovers its footing to deliver a small scale indie winner.

Sunshine Cleaning (rated R for language, disturbing images, some sexuality and drug use) charms us with warm performances and an ultimately upbeat spirit.

Companion viewing: Rain, Junebug, Little Miss Sunshine, Happy-Go-Lucky

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