Sometimes it takes a while for a film to be shown to the masses, no matter how much praise is lauded on it. After being buzzed at Sundance in 2008, it took a complete year before Sunshine Cleaning got out to the public. Thankfully it finally got its shot because this film is a definite gem. The title begs comparison to another Sundance favorite, Little Miss Sunshine, and the trailer even attempts to ride that to financial success, but don’t be misled. While that film had some drama and weighty issues to contend with, it was a comedy when all was said and done. This tale of two sisters, coping with the lives they have squandered, still coming to grips with their mother’s suicide so many years before, has a powerful story underneath the subtle humor. Cleaning becomes a major theme with lead Rose Lorkowski as a maid trying to support herself and her son, but eventually turning that into the lucrative business of crime scene hazard removal. However, in the end, the real cleaning concerns her life’s missteps and lack of self-worth. It is Rose that needs reworking, disposing of the toxins and opening her eyes to life’s greatest gift—the ability to help and be appreciated for it.
Amy Adams is simply brilliant in this role. She takes the strong vulnerability that vaulted her onto the map in Junebug and mixes it with the cute, humorous girl that comes through her comedic roles, whether forgettable as in Talladega Nights or charming as in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. Her performance as Rose expresses the multitude of emotions buried deep within her. The pain of growing up without a mother, let alone one she found dead in a bathtub, is one thing, but having to then help raise her little sister just added a weight to her shoulders that she could never truly take off. As her character says later on, she has never been good in many things, but one of those was sharing. Rose shared her entire life, in fact, probably gave more away than she kept for herself.
Having to mature so quick, looking after her sister, watching over her father as he goes from one get rich quick scheme to the next, and eventually raising a child of her own, by herself, meant that other aspects of her life never quite evolved in the same way. She latched on to those that showed an interest, becoming one of the popular girls—cheerleading and dating the captain of the football team, etc—because that was her way to be a normal kid. However, once school ended, she still had all the troubles she did before, therefore needing to keep attached to what she thought she could count on. It goes to such an extent that she still sees that old flame nightly at motels, (an interesting turn for Steve Zahn as a jock, opposed to the usual goofball geek he’s been relegated to), while he is married with kids of his own. It is never actually said, but he may also be the father of her son Oscar. Only the threat of putting this son into a school for those with learning disabilities gets her to take stock and do something for herself.
That new profession becomes the catalyst for change, a stability that had always been absent in her world as well as a venue to connect with her family once again. Sure it brings some laughs, I mean how can two beautiful women walking into a job cleaning up blood and guts, without the slightest clue how, not be at least marginally humorous? It also allows for the inclusion of some strong supporting players that help both her and sister Nora find their way. You cannot deny the appeal of Alan Arkin as the patriarch; he has definitely shored up all parts in Hollywood for the eccentric, slightly off his rocker grandfather. But it was a surprisingly effective turn from Mary Lynn Rajskub and the greatness of my perpetual favorite Clifton Collins Jr. that stand out. Rajskub becomes someone that Nora relates to. While exact opposites in persona, they have both lost their mother and Nora needs to be with someone that may share those feelings of sadness, because Rose had never allowed herself the time to do so, always trying to play Mom instead. And Collins Jr. just continues being a chameleon, playing whatever comes his way to perfection. You can’t beat his one-armed, southern, medical waste distributor that enjoys building model aircraft. He becomes the one man Rose is able to count on; someone that is finally willing to look after her.
And while Adams is the star, you can’t help but wonder what the film would have been without Emily Blunt’s turn as Nora. She is troubled, depressed, and without a clear path for herself. You truly see her only when she is unencumbered by familial obligations, but unfortunately that true self, while washing away the sarcasm and masks built to hide, is a mess of emotional grief. Watching her trestle, seeing the utter jubilation turn to sobbing as the memories of the day her mother died seep through, is devastating. Sunshine Cleaning is about these two women discovering their true inner voices, accepting each other, as well as themselves. Rose cares so much about what others think of her and Nora doesn’t care at all. The two need to help find a livable medium in order to continue on before they end up like their mother.
There is so much heart and character serving as the backbone to this story that I almost feel bad at how it was marketed as a feel-good comedy. It is definitely a feel-good film, but it is not as clear-cut as you may expect. Not everything is answered and not everything is rectified. You can’t just blindly forgive people, no matter who they are. However, when the end credits role, you will see an evolution in character for all three of the Lorkowski clan’s older members. Life has its ups and downs, but as long as you have each other, no problem is unsolvable. It is one thing to look in a mirror every morning and say that you are strong and powerful, it’s a complete other to wake up and truly believe it.