"Sunshine Cleaning"

It seems too easy to compare “Sunshine Cleaning” to “Little Miss Sunshine,” the award-show darling from 2006. If the similarities in the title weren’t enough, perhaps the supporting role by Alan Arkin, an adorable yet quite strange child, and the surrounding themes of death would also do the trick. Indeed, the comparison seems too easy but compare I must.

If you liked “Little Miss Sunshine,” you will likely enjoy “Sunshine Cleaning” as well. If you weren’t in love with “LMS” (like me), you will likely still enjoy “Sunshine Cleaning” as it manages to tackle its subject matter with a little more, well, sunshine than the former film. “Cleaning” revolves around single mom Rose (Amy Adams) who, along with her sister Norah (Emily Blunt) takes up crime scene cleanup as a way of making ends meet. They start their own business and slowly but surely learn the ends and outs of what it takes to clean up a trailer after, say, a murder-suicide. It’s a dirty and often gruesome job and both women find themselves attempting to provide comfort and peace for the loved ones left behind, while dealing with their own troubled pasts.

The wonderful thing about a small budget, independent film like “Cleaning” is that it allows for true, genuine character development and exploration that often goes missing in bigger movies. The characters here are brilliant. Even when the story line seems potentially lacking and unquestionably rushed, I loved the characters and was truly interested to see what would happen for each of them. Arkin plays the haunted grandfather to a tee, one part loving and well intentioned, one part having never recovered from where his life has taken him. Rose’s son Oscar (Jason Spevack) is a likeable and sympathetic little weirdo who brings the audience in subtly rather than dramatically. Clifton Collins, Jr. gives a very steady performance as a janitorial supply store manager who serves as a confidant (and occasional babysitter) for Rose.

The real stars, of course, are Adams and Blunt. As is often the case, Blunt’s younger sister Norah is the perfect opposite to Adams’ Rose; fragile and weaker on the surface but stronger than even she gives herself credit for compared to tougher and harder on the outside but hurting and tired inside. I would challenge any moviegoer to sit through a scene in which Norah climbs up a train trestle to “stare into the face of God” without feeling emotionally attached to her character. Likewise, it is hard to take in Adams’ performance without feeling, in some small way, moved. Her shortcomings as a mother, sister, or whatever else are less worthy of condemnation and more marks of true authenticity. She is on the verge of breaking when she starts her company and it seems that bringing this small service, however unappreciated it may be, into people’s lives gives her a bit of hope if nothing else. What I love most about Adams, particularly in this role, is the way she acts and engages both the audience and her on screen surroundings with her eyes. Here her eyes are almost pleading with you, with her family, with the universe to just give her a break. Being that “Cleaning” was released in March, it’s unlikely that Adams will see any attention come award season but her performance here is better than any female role I saw all of last year.

Where “Cleaning” truly excels is in its willingness to allow the emotion of the film to develop organically; to “let the game come to it,” so to speak. Far, far too often films such as this resort to trolling for emotion. That is, scenes that are supposed to be moving or emotionally engaging are played up with music or camera angles in an effort to MAKE the audience connect. More often than not this doesn’t work and many times when it does, the viewer feels kind of dumb for falling for the movie’s dirty little trick (see: just about any movie involving the death of a family pet). In essence, you feel forced or baited into crying or “feeling for” the character.

There is no such trickery with “Cleaning.” Director Christine Jeffs simply puts the material and the characters before the audience and allows them to make their own judgment of whether to get connected to what’s happening or not. And, for me at least, it worked. I truly enjoyed this film and maybe more importantly, I CARED about this film and about its characters. That is something that honestly doesn’t happen all that often and I hope to see the efforts put worth here rewarded come award season.

Grade: A-.