Sunshine Cleaning (2009) Dir. Christine Jeffs

Movies at the Speed of Sky

 Offbeat, downbeat, low-key, slow-burning. The list of euphemisms for ‘cheap indie flick’ go on. These are also frequently accompanied by words like ‘massively dull’ but I was looking forward to this one, despite missing it on the big screen. Sunshine Cleaning matches all of the above hyphenated-descriptions, only it bypasses ‘dull’ by a huge margin. 
We follow the low-key (see?) lives of two sisters; Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) is a single mother and an ex-cheerleader who now cleans houses for a living. Norah (Emily Blunt) is a drop-out who can’t hold onto a single crappy job and who tells Rose’s young son scary stories about the ‘Lobster man’ when she babysits (funnier than it should be!). They also live near their father, Joe (Alan Arkin), who appears to be a bit of a scam artist, trying to sell dodgy shrimp to restaurants and savoury sweets to candy stores. When Norah loses her waitressing job and the school kicks out Rose’s son, it’s time for the two sisters to join forces. Encouraged by the cop Rose is having a no-hope affair with, they start working as freelance crime scene cleaners. 
They’re pretty awful at it, too, and it’s a very steep learning curve as this seems to require seriously specialist knowledge. I think most people would probably know not to dump biohazardous human waste in a skip, but apparently not everyone gets that straightaway! Cue embarrassing results.
 Rose (Amy Adams) and Norah (Emily Blunt) in one of many arguments
In different hands this could have been a full on, wacky gross-out comedy, possibly starring Seth Rogen (it’s only a matter of time, surely). Although there are some spectacularly gruesome parts – the very worst being when Norah accidentally rolls onto a mattress that once contained a very-very dead person – this also gently points out how frequently our lives are touched by death and the importance of the service that the girls provide. It also achieves this without being sickly about it, although the old lady coping with her husband’s suicide is a particular heartbreaker. The movie strays into the darker side of death without losing you, or making you wish there’d be zombies, which is what I usually wish would happen when a ‘heavy-drama’ gets too ‘drama-heavy’. Sunshine Cleaning elegantly skirts around this threat, frequently making a good point, but never overdoing it.
The Lorkowski family. L-R Oscar, Rose, Joe and Norah
Yes, that is a very cool Alien painting right behind them. 
Another big(ish) reason to love this movie!
Much of this is helped by some spot-on casting. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt make believably anatagonistic sisters, who are constantly pushing at each other’s nerves but get on with it all the same. Adams and Blunt possess terrific comic timing, ensuring that events and reactions stay knowing and just the right side of absurd. Alan Arkin has also perfected the role of doting, eccentric grandfather-figure, and the kid (Jason Spevack) is particuarly annoying, but in the way that young kids actually are, rather than the nauseating, Hollywood-cute annoying. A special shout out too for the permanently frowny Mary Lynn-Rajskub (Chloe from 24!) who unwittingly helps Norah to unlock a little more of her grief about their mother’s tragic suicide.
This is after all a film about death, and it succeeds in showing the effect it has on people’s lives all the time, without descending into sentimental BS or gut-wrenching misery. This is a huge strength, and I feel it’s very hard to balance convincingly. It’s never mawkish either, it’s just sad at times, which is an important difference. I was never entirely sure what would happen to them next, and the lives of this small, screwed-up family unit really drew me in to the end. While there’s no way the conclusion will make you punch the air and go ‘yesss!’ (this isn’t Back to the Future…), each character gets to make the most of the hand they’re dealt, and there’s a smidgen of hope for each of their futures. Death might be an inevitable part of life, but Sunshine Cleaning succeeds in making it more pleasant for those of us left behind.
Worth giving a chance, this is a fun, low-key flick that’s 
anything but deathly-dull.

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