Dir: Christine Jeffs. US. 2008. 102mins
Christine Jeffs' third feature has a great premise and knockout cast but proves disappointingly soft-centred. Long touted as a follow-up of sorts to Little Miss Sunshine - it shares the same financiers, producers, almost the same title and Oscar-winning actor Alan Arkin in virtually the same role - Sunshine Cleaning has none of that film's dark edges or eagerness to entertain, and is unlikely to follow its path to breakout box-
What makes the film watchable - and marketable - are its lead actresses Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, playing sisters Rose and Norah Lorkowski. Two of the most exciting starlets at work today, both have bewitching screen presence and a capacity for vulnerability which will see their careers soar in years to come.
Smart distributors could score some success selling the film as a women's picture along the lines of Where The Heart Is, Anywhere But Here or last year's Sundance hit Waitress, but the smalltown American setting, meandering pace and unsatisfying final act could land it more in the lowkey range of The Spitfire Grill or Come Early Morning. A more fertile life lies as a regular programming item on female-skewed cable channels.
Set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the film principally follows single mother Rose (Adams) as she struggles to get by with a cleaning job and an eccentric son Oscar (Spevack) who is on the verge of heading for special needs class.
She has sex with Mac (Zahn) her high school boyfriend and the father of her son who chose to marry another woman. Her sister Norah (Blunt) is similarly challenged. She lives at home with her father (Arkin), has no career direction and a hopeless boyfriend with whom she has meaningless sex. Both women are still damaged by their mother's suicide when they were children.
Spurred on to change her life when she bumps into a wealthy old classmate, Rose takes on board an idea from Mac, who is a cop, and decides to set up a business cleaning up the blood and body parts from crime scenes and suicides. She enlists Norah to help her and together they form Sunshine Cleaning, buying supplies from one-armed retailer Winston (Collins Jr).
Initially squeamish at the sight of blood, gore and other body fluids on bathroom walls or mattresses, the two quickly become immune to it, but their mother's own death is always lurking in their minds. When Norah finds some photographs of the daughter of one of the suicides, she sets out to find her. The woman (played by Rajskub) is attracted to Norah and awakens some lesbian tendencies in her, but quickly leaves the picture when Norah confesses why she tracked her down.
The film's narrative doesn't go anywhere much after this incident. Arkin's character invests in a series of crazy schemes with his grandson (a boy equivalent of Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine), Rose tells Mac that she can't see him again, Norah accidentally burns down one of the houses they are cleaning and the sisters go out of business.
The script never really finds much comedy mileage or momentum in the cleaning business and the third act focuses on how the two women rely on each other after the tragedy of their mother's death.
Unlike Little Miss Sunshine, in which the beauty pageant acted as the catalyst for the family coming together, there is no such setpiece here and the film quietly winds down sans payoff and with a melancholy undertone that is far from sunny.
Big Beach Films
Back Lot Pictures
Clean Sweep Productions
Joseph T Garrity
Clifton Collins Jr
Mary Lynn Rajskub