Sunshine Cleaning

Overture March 13, 2009


Christine Jeffs' “Sunshine Cleaning,” one of the most highly-anticipated titles in the Dramatic Competition at last year's Sundance Film Fest, based on the star power of Amy Adams and Emily Brunt, two talented actresses circling around stardom, leaves much to be desired, due to frequent but not always warranted changes of theme and particularly tone.

Overture will release the film March 11, 2009, a whole year after the Sundance premiere.  I revisited the film, which has been slightly reedited, and my reaction is the same to the one I has last year.  Sunshine Cleaning is a compromised film, perhaps too concerned with pleasing the audience.  Overall, it is a step down for the gifted director, who had previously made two more interesting films, “Rain” and “Sylvia,” a biopic about the poet co-starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig.

Inevitable comparisons will be made between “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Sunshine Cleaning,” due to many reasons, beginning with the title and the fact that they were produced by the same shingle. The two films also deal with similar theme, a dysfunctional, multi-generational comedy, while using a quirky tone.  And then there's Alan Arkin, who won a Supporting Oscar for “Little Miss Shine,” in a similar, offbeat but less satisfying role.

As conceived and executed by New Zealand director Christine Jeffs, what begins as a quirky, darkly humorous tale of two sisters who engage in a morbid line of work, quickly escalates into a middlebrow family melodrama, with strong psychologistic and therapeutic elements about bickering and competing siblings who have not fully come to terms with their mother's suicide during their early childhood, an traumatic event that had left them damaged and bruised.

The first act of Megan Holley's sharply uneven scenario boasts the spirit and charm of its stars, and the movie unfolds as a delightful serio-comedy about two sisters striving to better their lives, despite personal and social circumstances that drag them down.

Ultimately, “Sunshine Cleaning” is fueled by the appeal of Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as two sisters who, in their effort to escape the malaise and general shabbiness of their day-to-day existence, undertake a very specialized business, cleaning up the blood and body parts at various sites of crime or suicide.

Like any enterprise in today's economy, the biohazard removal business entails regulations and practices that the two basically unsophisticated people need to learn. And coming, as they do, from a family whose parents prepared them for little–a mother who departed early and a father whose constant search for get-rich-quick schemes avails them little that's tangible–only makes things more complicated. Rest of the tale concerns the sisters' quest for social mobility and their relentless pursuit of dreams, both personal and collective.

Jeffs should get credit for her audacious if gimmicky casting-against-type, using two sexy and appealing actresses like Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as ordinary, down-on-their luck misfit femmes, stuck in a stifling environment. In the first part, when Amy Adams's Rose keeps telling herself: “I am not a loser, I am not a loser, I am strong,” we couldn't agree more with Adams the actress, but in the movie, Rose does play a loser–at least for a while.

When the saga begins, Rose Lorkowski (Adams), once the most popular and beautiful girl in high school (the cheer leader type), is a single mom raising her 7 year-old son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), by working as a maid. It's an uneasy, even embarrassing line of work because she often has to clean the lavish houses of former classmates of hers, who needless to say were not then as pretty or popular as she was.

Vastly different, Norah is edgier, uses foul language, covers her body with tattoos, and spends long evenings in her room by herself since she lives with their aging father, Joe (Alan Arkin), an grumpy old man who is better with his grandson Oscar than he ever had been with his daughters. A rep of old American stock, he refuses to be defeated, and still harbors unrealistic dreams of how to get rich quickly.

For recreation, Rose continues to date her beau Mac (Steve Zhan), the local cop. Since he is married, he can only see Rose for brief interludes in a local motel, during which Norah is asked to baby-sit Oscar. However, instead of soothing the boy and putting him to bed with reading him fairytales, naughty Norah entertains the boy with frightening horror stories about predatory animals that only increase his anxieties.

The idea for a new business actually comes from Mac, when he notes almost in passing that there is lots of money to be made and plenty of career opportunities in the specialized business of crime-scene clean-up, usually in motels, but sometimes in apartments, too; it's the sort of job that Harvey Keitel performed in a much cooler way in Tarantino's “Pulp Fiction.”

Would the sisters take a risk and go for the ride You bet. Rose invests all of her time, imagination, and energy into getting such an enterprise off the ground. She names it Sunshine Cleaning, and describing the biz as a “growth industry”–a nice double-entendre, particularly when Adams says it.

Never mind that they lack the experience, tools, cleaning materials, and most important of all, formal certification. All of which is taken care of, and the business begins to thrive when they get lucrative contracts from big insurance companies.

Some of their assorted jobs are amusing and done with the proper distance. We get a detailed view of what such a line of work entails; others are more emotional. Against her sister's advice, Norah gets involved in one particular case of an elderly mom found dead while sitting on her chair. Rekindling the memory of their own mom, Norah becomes motivated in looking for the deceased woman's daughter through some clues she finds in her purse.

Unfortunately, in the film's second half, a more conventional and dreary melodrama takes center stage and the quirkiness is almost forgotten. Still haunted by the death of her mother when she was very young, Norah embarks on a journey of discovery of their mother's identity, with all the good and bad consequences involved.

As far as direction goes, Jeffs' third feature represents a step down from her previously films, “Rain” and “Sylvia,” which were also problematic but more interesting, thematically and visually. Jeffs' main problem here is striking the right balance between the truly satirical and darkly comic elements of her morbid tale and the more serious and conventional ones, defined by siblings' rivalry, bickering, separation, and reconciliation. This is yet another indie about the importance of finding one's worth.

Strangely, though “Sunshine Cleaning” is a serio-comedy about the desires of “ordinary” people who by pursuing their dreams become extraordinary, the saga's grand, upbeat finale doesn't ring entirely true.


Rose Norkowski – Amy Adams

Norah Norkowski – Emily Blunt

Joe Norkowski – Alan Arkin

Oscar Norkowski – Jason Spevack

Mac – Steve Zahn

Lynn – Mary Lynn Rajskub

Winston – Clifton Collins Jr.

 Randy – Eric Christian Olsen

Carl – Kevin Chapman


Overture release of a Big Beach production.

Produced by Peter Saraf, Marc Turtletaub, Jeb Brody, Glenn Williamson. Co-producer, Robert J. Dohrmann.

Directed by Christine Jeffs.

Screenplay: Megan Holley.

Camera: John Toon.

Editor: Heather Persons.

Music: Michael Penn. Music supervisor: Susan Jacobs.

Production designer: Joe Garrity.

Art director: Guy Barnes.

Costume designer: Alix Friedberg.

Sound: Lori Dori.