Sunshine Cleaning (review)

Spic ’n’ Span

There’s a beauty to Amy Adams that has nothing to do with what she looks like (though of course she is cute as a button). It’s about honesty and integrity and vulnerability and strength: those are things she brings to characters that make even the silliest of them — like the previously animated Disney princess of Enchanted — seem real and genuine and grounded, and let you say such things about them without sounding like a complete loon. It’s about the wisdom and the choosiness with which she, as an actor, picks her roles, avoiding the typical girlfriend or victim parts and sticking to more demanding, more complicated stuff.

Okay, I admit: I have such a huge girl crush on Amy Adams, it’s crazy.
And it’s not like Sunshine Cleaning ain’t pretty much what you’re expecting it to be, the kind of quirky-sweet stuff of the indie-by-design shadow industry that has sprung up to serve those exhausted by the general brainlessness of studio films. It’s a genre — if that’s even the term: perhaps standard is better — that has rapidly developed its own conventions. Times will be tough, characters will be ordinary yet extraordinary at the same time, humor will be offbeat enough not to need to resort to jokes about bodily fluids yet not really challenging to more mainstream audiences that might stumble across the movie… In fact, not much will be terribly outside the realms of reality most working- or middle-class Americans will be familiar with. These movies would not stand out as special if Hollywood weren’t so dedicated to maintaining all manner of illusions of fantasy about how real people live, what real people look like, and how real people cope with problems.

But Hollywood does do that, and so a movie like Sunshine Cleaning still feels like a breath of fresh air even though, honestly, I’ve seen this kind of thing plenty before. Partly that’s because I see way more movies than you do — so take that as an indication that you may like this even more than I do, and I like it a lot. And partly that’s because of the honesty and integrity, etc., that everyone involved brings to a not-unfamiliar story.

I don’t want to sound like I’m putting down honesty, integrity, and all that rot, because I’m not: it’s rare, and should be celebrated when we do happen across it.

Adams’s (Doubt, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) Rose Lorkowski is struggling in a way that many women will recognize: she’s raising a child on her own, with the occasional help of her unreliable sister, Norah (Emily Blunt [Charlie Wilson’s War, Dan in Real Life], whom I am in the process of developing a huge girl crush on, too), and their slightly wacky dad, Joe (Alan Arkin [Marley & Me, Get Smart], who’s kinda adorable). She’s in love with a totally inappropriate man, Mac, once her high school sweetheart and now married to someone else. (Steve Zahn [Bandidas, Sahara] plays Mac, and he’s just slightly less crushable than he usually is, because Mac is pretty much a jerk.) She’s a mess, but not a mess of a mess: she’s not a walking disaster area or anything. She’s coping, but she’s frustrated, and she’s just one misfortune away from a meltdown.

Which comes, of course, when her son, Oscar (Jason Spevack: Fever Pitch) gets kicked out his elementary school. He’s a nuisance, but of the creative, imaginative, won’t-be-corralled type. The school wants to Ritalin him into submission, but Rose won’t have it — she’ll figure out a way to pay for the private school that will give Oscar the attention he deserves.

The real-estate license she’s been studying for won’t pay off in time (and today comes with the unintended baggage of all the negatives associated with the mortgage meltdown and global recession — who’s buying houses?). So on the suggestion of Mac — he’s a cop in their Phoenix hometown — she sets herself up as a freelance cleaner-upper of crime scenes. She’s already been working as a housecleaner for a local agency, so how much different can this be?

What was that I said about bodily fluids? Oh dear, but that’s what Rose — and Norah, whom Rose ropes into helping her in this entrepreneurial endeavor — is now having to cope with. Unlike the tedious domestic cleanery that is so undervalued when a gal is scrubbing toilets and making beds, mopping up blood and brains actually gets some respect… and pays pretty darn well, too. But there are more variables than what kind of bleach to buy at work here…

Sunshine Cleaning is tidy as a film, thanks to spiffy direction by Christine Jeffs and a lovely script by Megan Holley: perhaps the very best moment of the movie comes when Rose explains why she loves this new job, and how useful it makes her feel (though credit for that goes to Adams, too, for selling the idea so well). But as a narrative, not everything is tidy. Stray characters get roped into the story, but whether they’ll be hanging around past the end of the story is another question entirely, and they’re prickly enough — and Rose and Norah’s new connections to them are tenuous enough that we can’t be sure — that nothing is certain. There’s sweet Winston (Clifton Collins Jr.: Capote, The Rules of Attraction), who runs the industrial-cleanser shop, but does Rose take too much advantage of him? There’s Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub: Little Miss Sunshine, Legally Blonde 2: Red White and Blonde) whom Norah befriends under dubious circumstances — can any friendship survive the revelation of them?

In Hollywood, the answers to those questions might be easy and obvious, but this ain’t Hollywood. It’s bittersweet and defiantly unfantastical reality, however idiosyncratic it sometimes is. But ain’t idiosyncratic the definition of “real life”?

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