Sunshine Cleaning (2008)

Sunshine Cleaning follows sisters Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as they try their hand at a new business. That business is cleaning up after crime scenes and accidents, involving a lot of gross messes and bodily fluids. They’re unlikely candidates for the job, and at first their inexperience shows, but eventually it becomes more than just a source of income to them.

I had a great time watching this movie. The distinguishing feature of it, the “cleaning up after dead people” occupation, gives the story an obvious path, and I’ll admit that it doesn’t stray far from it. Still, the movie prevails by remaining optimistically upbeat throughout, while still being able to have a few deeper scenes.

The cast is no doubt the reason for the film’s cheery cadence. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt are an excellent pair of female leads. Adams is so insecure that her self-confidence has to come through Post-It notes. Blunt is such a screw-up that she can’t even keep a job down. Both find self-value in the clean-up job. It’s a simple but effective character arc that Adams and Blunt handle terrifically. Even with recent career missteps such as Leap Year, Adams has quickly become one of my favorite contemporary actresses.

Alan Arkin co-stars as their father, and when isn’t Arkin a pleasure to have on screen? He provides a lot of the optimism of the film, supporting his iconoclast grandson and encouraging him to realize his talents. Steve Zahn is also in attendance, acting like a real human being for once. The ensemble creates a very realistic family – sure, they might be a little weird, but so is everyone’s family. Sunshine Cleaning is a character study that works because its characters are worth studying.

One of the most interesting characters in the movie is sadly mistreated, however. Clifton Collins, Jr. plays a one-armed store owner who goes to great lengths to help Adams out. Blunt initially calls him a freak, citing his dismemberment. Adams may not share her sister’s disgust, but it seems like she relies on him a whole lot – some might make a point she was using him.

I’m not saying that every guy who helps out an attractive girl should be rewarded with some sort of shot with her, but Collins, Jr. essentially starts her job training, and even watches her kid for him – a kid who just broke a model airplane of his. In the end, Collins, Jr.’s reward seems to be the friendship of Adams and her family. I think the prospect of a one-armed romantic interest would have been a sensible and progressive step for the movie to take, but it uncharacteristically deviates from formula here.

Amputees aside, the film shares a lot of similarities with Little Miss Sunshine: eccentric old grandfather, cutesy outsider kid, dysfunctional family, a vehicle as focal to the characters’ journeys, and hell, even the word “sunshine” in the title. Still, Sunshine Cleaning has enough heart to stand alone as its own movie, and if the producers end up with a third movie addressing the same themes, I’d be fine with a “Sunshine Trilogy” – as long as the third film matches Sunshine Cleaning in quality.

Despite an apparent impression of unoriginality, Sunshine Cleaning is an effective character study with an excellent cast. It’s a bit formulaic, but grade-A performances and an optimistic tone make it worth watching.

Final rating: 8/10

–James A. Janisse

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