Sunshine Cleaning

I have a low tolerance for a certain kind of film that specializes in quirkiness obviously, patently meant to get your sympathy – eccentricity for its own sake. And there’s a fair amount of that in “Sunshine Cleaning”, the new film by Christine Jeffs (Sylvia). The picture strives for a quiet salute to the value of the family unit – in its own unobtrusive way, I guess it kind of works, but its impact is muzzled. The main reason I’m giving it a passing grade is the presence of the remarkable Amy Adams (Junebug, Enchanted), who once again emerges as the shining star of the cast.

Adams plays Rose, a single mom with an 8 year-old son who looks and talks like he just dropped in from Mars – God forbid they have a well-adjusted, good at sports, does fine at school kind of kid in these movies. Little Oscar’s latest bit of odd behaviour: he just started licking stuff out of the blue– teacher’s legs too. Maybe it’s time for some serious medication, the school advises. Don’t worry, you’re the normal one and they don’t get you, replies Grandpa Joe (Alan Arkin, who here speaks in an amusing tone of contained exasperation). Joe has one of those only at the movies occupations – let me get it straight from the promo material: he’s “working on the latest of a life-long string of get-rich-quick schemes”. One minute he’s hawking some kind of miracle candy, the next he’s trying to peddle shrimp to a local restaurant, who’s having none of it. I wouldn’t trust Joe as a business partner, but I’m sure it’d be a hoot to tag along on a sales pitch.

Oscar (Jason Spevack) is the kind of little guy who asks himself everyday questions like “Who was I before I was born?” and “What happens when we die?”, when he’s by himself in a van. Joe sees something special in the kid, however, especially since he thinks that Oscar has “business acumen”. All right.

Rose works has a cleaning lady, but she’d love to get into real estate. She’s also having an affair with her married high school boyfriend, Mac (Steve Zahn). Mac, who’s now a cop, tells her there’s big money in the crime scene cleanup and bio-hazard removal business, and maybe she ought to get into that. Meanwhile, her younger sister Norah , played by the striking Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada, Dan in Real Life), has just been fired from another waitress job (cue a scene so cliché you basically never see it, the one where you drop the plates and get fired on the spot, but it’s not really a firing, you know, cuz she’s quitting the hellhole anyway). What better occasion for the two sisters to spend time together and make some money while at it, right? So they start the more or less black market operation that drives the narrative – and allows for the only true laugh in the movie: the tumble caused by a dropped dirty mattress, more precisely Norah’s reaction – understandable yet comically exaggerated – to the ensuing contact with her face.

There’s an attempt from Norah to deal with a past trauma, in a subplot involving Mary Lynn Rajskub. It has good intentions and is fairly intriguing, but it feels truncated. Also, I’m not sure what the deal was with the cop’s wife telling Rose she knows she’s seeing her husband. It’s a weird little tone breaker of a scene, coming basically out of nowhere and never addressed again. The film’s high point, I will concede, is Norah’s touching admission to her big sister about what they had to go through as children and how important she is to her. As played by the luminous Adams, Rose is a very likable character – you root for her and those she loves, while wishing there was a little less quirkiness and a few characters were more fleshed out.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay