‘Sunshine Cleaning’ a dark-cloud dramedy with real recessionary resonance

by Bill Wine
Posted 3/19/21

By the time “Sunshine Cleaning” gets to cleanup time, you realize that it's been an original and touching drama. Okay, dramedy. Dark dramedy.

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‘Sunshine Cleaning’ a dark-cloud dramedy with real recessionary resonance

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Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.

You might find yourself thinking about “Little Miss Sunshine” while you're watching “Sunshine Cleaning,” a comparison that does not do the latter, even though it's a thoroughly respectable movie, any favors.

Hey, that's not your fault, it's theirs, the folks who made and marketed “Sunshine Cleaning.”

First of all, there's that common titular word, Sunshine. Then there's the fact that both films are set in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In both a dysfunctional family is on display. A van is prominently involved. Oscar winner Alan Arkin once again plays a cranky widower grandfather who dotes on his grandchild. And the early reels make us feel that we're watching an out-and-out comedy.

That's a shame because by the time “Sunshine Cleaning” gets to cleanup time, you realize that it's been an original and touching drama. Okay, dramedy. Dark dramedy.

Amy Adams and Emily Blunt co-star as sisters whose mother died during their childhood. Adams is eternal optimist thirtysomething Rose Lorkowski, who cleans houses for a living and for whom it's been a downhill journey since she was captain of the cheerleaders in high school. Blunt, as her edgy younger sister, Norah, is a sardonic underachiever who has trouble staying employed.

Their father Joe, played by Arkin, is a new-moneymaking-scheme-every-month salesman who takes a special delight in his eight-year-old grandson Oscar (Jason Spevack), even when he gets in trouble at public school and Rose pulls him out in hopes of enrolling him in a private school.

But private school costs a lot more money than she has. So, at the urging of her married cop boyfriend, played by Steve Zahn, she starts an unusual business that's not for the squeamish -- crime-scene cleanup and biohazard removal. It's a growth industry, she's told. Yeah, but gigs don't come any messier or smellier.

So Rose and Norah cover up from head to toe, take a deep breath, hold their noses, and dive right in. What's a little blood between sibs?

The director, New Zealand's Christine Jeffs, gets a decent share of laughs, especially in the early going. But it's in the way that the sisters reconcile their relationship and the central emotional truth of their lives that we are touched and rewarded by film's end.

Screenwriter Megan Holley's script has a few major narrative omissions and a number of subplots with loose ends, but it also does a creditable job of balancing morbid curiosity and offbeat humor, and an even better job of highlighting the metaphor of a cleanup business suggesting the cleaning up of the mess that the sisters' lives have become.

As for Adams, she is amazingly captivating, an irresistible actress you just cannot help but root for, and this registers most impactfully during her numerous brave-smile closeups. And her sibling chemistry with Blunt is first-rate.

“Sunshine Cleaning” is an endearing dark-cloud dramedy with real recessionary resonance.

Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.

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