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The Independent Critic

Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin, Steve Zahn, Clifton Collins Jr., Jason Spevack, Mary Lynn Rajskub
Christine Jeffs
Megan Holley
Rated R
102 Mins.

 "Sunshine Cleaning" Review 
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You are my sunshine
my only sunshine.
You make me happy
when skies are grey.
You'll never know, dear,
how much I love you.
Please don't take my sunshine away.

- Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell

Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) is beautiful, but doesn't know it. In high school, Rose was head cheerleader and dated the quarterback of the football team. She was the most likely to do and be virtually everything.

The quarterback, Mac (Steve Zahn), married someone else and became a respected police detective.

Rose, on the other hand, became the single mom of Oscar, a pre-teen ball of mischief and mayhem misunderstood by his teachers and laughed at by his fellow students. Working as a housekeeper with fading dreams of obtaining her real estate license, Rose struggles to get by while maintaining an affair with Mac that seems more grounded in his shattered self-esteem than any continuing affection.

Rose's sister, Norah (Emily Blunt), fares even worse. The polar opposite of the ebullient Rose, Norah is a goth, uninspired and unmotivated young woman who has difficulty holding a job and still lives at home with their father, Joe (Alan Arkin).

It's tempting to lump "Sunshine Cleaning" into the "Little Miss Sunshine" genre of family dysfunction films. The two films share some of the same producers, the word sunshine and, gee whiz, even Alan Arkin in an almost copycat role.

It's tempting.

Yes, there are similarities.

"Sunshine Cleaning" does feature family dysfunction. Lots of it.

Like "Little Miss Sunshine," "Sunshine Cleaning" is a dark comedy with stunning moments of tenderness, heartbreaking moments of vulnerability and my, oh my, how the tears did flow at times.

Yet, "Sunshine Cleaning" feels more like "Waitress," Adrienne Shelly's final film, than it does "Little Miss Sunshine."

"Little Miss Sunshine," for all its heartfelt characterizations and feel good messages, was a bouncing ball of human idiosyncracies. It worked, largely, because the actors made it work and we cared deeply about the characters.

"Waitress," on the other hand, certainly had its quirks but centered the focus squarely on the inherent comedy, drama and absurdity of the human experience. The story was more central to the experience of viewing "Waitress," and at film's end we needed and received resolution not just for the characters but the story itself.

"Sunshine Cleaning" operates very much in this fashion as the story is as important as its characters.

After her son gets in trouble one more time at his "by the books" public school, Rose vows to send him to private school where he can receive individualized, person-centered instruction. After another tryst with Mac, the desperate for funds Rose is hooked into the lucrative field of crime scene clean-up despite not being licensed and having nothing beyond your general housekeeping experience.

Sunshine Cleaning is born.

Rose recruits her sister Norah into the action and before long the two are operating "Sunshine Cleaning" with great success.

Before long, Rose begins to discover previously unknown channels of strength and her life begins to change in ways big and small.

As a shallow tribute to Adams' masterful performance here, I must confess that I find her to be the most beautiful actress working today. In "Sunshine Cleaning," Adams is in a couple of scenes barely dressed and, to be completely honest, I found myself so deeply engrossed in her performance that it was only on the way home that I began to realize as much. Adams brings a weathered vulnerability to Rose with just enough simmer that one can easily believe this is a beautiful, vibrant young woman whose life has taken a sad detour.

For those of you who've primarily known Emily Blunt through her role in "The Devil Wears Prada," Blunt's performance here will be a stunning revelation. Blunt, arguably, gives  the film's most emotionally charged performance as the youngest sister sheltered from yet struggling to deal with a childhood trauma that impacts both young women to this day.

While Alan Arkin captured the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in "Little Miss Sunshine," i'd be inclined to argue that Arkin is even more convincing and effective as Joe, a loving father whose get rich quick schemes seldom lead to getting rich ever.

The supporting players are strong across the board including Jason Spevack as the young Oscar, Steve Zahn as Mac, Clifton Collins Jr. as a supportive owner of a cleaning product shop and Mary Lynn Rajskub, who understatedly shines as a lonely lesbian who draws the attention of Norah after the discovery of an old photo at one of the crime scenes.

Christine Jeffs, who directed the Sylvia Plath biopic "Sylvia," balances the scenes nicely between the tenderness and the desperation, the vulnerability and the growing strength. First-time screenwriter Megan Holley beautifully weaves the characters together with natural dialogue and well placed moments of poignancy and laughter. While the scenes involving Norah and Mary Lynn Rajskub's Lynn feel a touch underwritten and the ending a bit too neatly tied up, these are minor transgressions for such a beautifully written film.

While one could argue that "Little Miss Sunshine" is, perhaps, a stronger film overall, "Sunshine Cleaning" is easily my favorite of the two with its strong characterizations, marvelous trio of leading performances and balanced blend of the dark and the sublime.

"Sunshine Cleaning" is a tremendously moving, heartfelt and humorous film about the toxic spills and hazards that meet us along our life journey and the ways, great and small, in which we overcome them, love one another and discover who we are really meant to be.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic