We See Chick Flicks: “Sunshine Cleaning”

Starring Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin, Steve Zahn

The Lowdown: Ten years out of high school, most people have some kind of college degree. Lots are in stable relationships, a bunch are married and some have kids. A few lucky ones might have made partner or published her first book.

This movie is not about those people.
Back in high school, Rose (played by Amy Adams) pranced on cheerleading squad and dated one of the hottest guys in school. But ten years later, she’s a single mother of a precocious and emotionally complex little boy, her boyfriend is a married man, and she works dead-end jobs as a waitress and cleaning lady. Life sneers at her and she sneers at herself. Her family, an elderly father and younger sister, are loving, but they’re even more screwed up than Rose. And while Rose understands how THEY got that way, she doesn’t understand how SHE got that way and she’s furiously trying to not screw up her life, or her young son’s life, any further.

Emily Blunt plays Rose’s younger sister, Norah, who we are meant to believe is a Bad Girl because Norah wears dark eye makeup even during the daytime and smokes pot in one scene. (I watched “Sunshine Cleaning” with my lesbian best friend, who whispered to me no fewer than four times, “Emily Blunt looks so cute!”). Ridiculously talented cutie-patootie Jason Spevack plays Rose’s adorably sociopathic son, Oscar, who is kicked out of public school when Rose refuses to give him ADD meds for his over-the-top, “pay attention to me!” behavior. Alan Arkin, reprising his Old Man Role from “Little Miss Sunshine,” plays Rose and Norah’s well-meaning but financially irresponsible father who would love to provide better for his daughters and grandson but never will be able to with the dead-end business ideas he cooks up.

Channeling her dad’s entrepreneurial behavior, Rose starts her own crime scene cleanup business (“It’s a growth industry,” she tells anyone who looks at her askance) and recruits/forces her younger sister to join her Sunshine Cleaning team. They scrub blood off the walls, haul gunshot-ridden mattresses into the street, and handle all manner of flotsem and jetsem of other people’s messy lives.

It turns out, Rose is actually good at running a crime scene cleanup business. She might be able to send her son to a private school that won’t try to medicate his personality into oblivion — and she’ll win the respect of all those girls she went to high school with who have sneered at her for years. Everything’s going great until…well…I don’t want to ruin the ending….

The Verdict: Unlike more traditional chick flicks, like “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” so many parts of “Sunshine Cleaning” are actually relatable insofar as Crap Grownup Problems. Not a single thing is sugarcoated. For example, Rose’s married boyfriend (played by Steve Zahn) sincerely cares about Rose, but not enough to leave his pregnant wife. Their bittersweet breakup scene is as raw as it gets. And the part where Rose breaks down crying and says, “The only thing I’m good at is getting men to want me. Not date me or marry me, but want me,” hit almost TOO close to home. Real tears came to my eyes. [Oh dude, just reading that did it to me. — Editor]

There’s also the sub-plot of Rose and Norah’s mom’s death: she committed suicide when the women were very young, and in her own way, each sister is haunted by losing her mother at such a young age. Unlike many films where a deceased parent is practically tokenized, Rose and Norah’s mother looms heavily in the plot — almost another principal cast member. If you’re from a family which has lost a significantmember, “Sunshine Cleaning”‘s handling of that sub-plot will hit close to home, too.

Unlike a lot of quirky films, “Sunshine Cleaning” doesn’t TRY to be quirky. It’s hilarious, macabre, sensitive and smart. I highly, highly recommend if you buy a movie ticket this weekend, it’s for “Sunshine Cleaning,” not, say, “The Haunting In Connecticut.”