Sunshine Cleaning

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Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- The idea behind "Sunshine Cleaning" -- two sisters seize a big opportunity in the crime-scene cleaning and bio-hazard removal business -- sounds like a swell opportunity for a black comedy. But New Zealand-born director Christine Jeffs ("Sylvia") and writer Megan Holly have other ideas. This admittedly odd business becomes instead a springboard for exploring issues of self-worth, loneliness, healing and acceptance. It's still a comedy, yet maybe more a gray than a black one.

Amy Adams and Emily Blunt are two highly attractive, naturally funny actresses on the cusp of stardom so their pairing here as two lost souls is genius. With the right marketing and promotion, a considerable audience over 25 could discover and appreciate this Sundance Dramatic Competition entry.

The movie begins with everyone in the Norkowski clan of Albuquerque, New Mexico, in trouble. Rose (Adams), a popular high-school cheerleader who has seen her options fade since turning 30s, settles for a pathetic housecleaning job and shabby affair with her old high-school boyfriend Mac (Steve Zahn), who is now married. She is downright ambitious compared to younger sister Norah (Blunt), just fired, who lives at home with their dad Joe (Alan Arkin) and whiles away the hours with dope and a slacker boyfriend.

Rose's bright but overly "imaginative" 8-year-old Oscar (Jason Spevack) constantly finds himself in trouble at school. Meanwhile, Joe is striking out with his latest hair-brained moneymaking scheme -- selling flavored popcorn from his car.

Mac, who is a cop, tips Rose off as to how much money can be made cleaning up death scenes. Rose drags Norah into this new enterprise, launching it before she has gotten proper certificates and licenses. Such is the eagerness of people to rid themselves of blood and body fluids that business booms. And an obliging cleaning supply clerk Winston (Clifton Collins Jr.) helps the women obtain all the necessities.

The movie doesn't exploit the death scenes for too much comedy. Indeed some are poignant. Rose finds herself comforting an aging woman whose husband committed suicide. Norah tracks down the daughter of "decomp" -- a decomposed woman -- to give the daughter her mother's fanny-pack photos. But Norah has a hard time explaining herself to the woman, Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), so Lynn mistakes her intensions.

For the first time in their lives, the women feel like they are helping people less fortunate than themselves. And there is this: It emerges that as very young girls they discovered their own mother's body after her suicide, a fact no one in the family has ever recovered from.

The film comically but empathetically investigates the lives of all these characters to see how past disappointments still color their lives, without them realizing the extent. These are all smart people who have allowed the opinions and behavior of others to have too great an impact on their lives.

Perhaps cleaning up the mess of people who have -- had --even worse lives acts as a kind of psychological tonic. Things aren't really all that bad and the Norkowskis have each other. Families can heal themselves.

Adams and Blunt play off one another with sisterly combativeness. Their timing and line readings mesh perfectly, producing comic sparks. Arkin is playing here a colorful elder that has become one of his specialties, but it feels at times out of place, belonging more perhaps to that other "Sunshine" Sundance film, "Little Miss Sunshine." Spevack gives that rare child performance that relies on no tricks and precocious sentimentality but is straightforward and clean.

Production values are solid although Jeffs is not a visual artist as yet. The film doesn't take nearly enough advantage of the incredible urban and rural landscapes of New Mexico.

SUNSHINE CLEANING
Backlot Pictures/Big Beach Films/Clean Sweep Productions

Credits:
Director: Christine Jeffs
Writer: Megan Holley
Producer: Marc Turtletaub, Peter Saraf, Glenn Williamson, Jeb Brody
Director of photography: John Toon
Production designer: Joseph Garrity
Costume designer: Alix Friedberg
Editor: Heather Persons.

Cast:
Rose: Amy Adams
Norah: Emily Blunt
Joe: Alan Arkin
Oscar: Jason Spevack
Mac: Steve Zahn
Lynn: Mary Lynn Rajskub
Winston: Clifton Collins, Jr.
No MPAA rating, running time 102.

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