DVD Release Date:  August 25, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  March 20, 2009 (limited)
Rating:  R (for language, disturbing images, some sexuality and drug use)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  102 min.
Director:  Christine Jeffs
Actors:  Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin, Jason Spevack, Steve Zahn, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Clifton Collins Jr., Eric Christian Olsen

It has the word "Sunshine" in the title. It stars Alan Arkin as the head of a dysfunctional family. Suicide is treated both as serious and, at times, darkly comic.

No, this is not a description of Little Miss Sunshine, for which Alan Arkin took home the Best Supporting Actor trophy but of Sunshine Cleaning, with Arkin in support of lead performances from Amy Adams and Emily Blunt. Based on what they do in Sunshine Cleaning, those two actresses may yet vie for Academy recognition at next year's ceremony.

The film has a familiar, quirky quality to it and a plot that doesn't offer too many surprises, but Sunshine Cleaning is a moving look at human loss, at how we grapple with the afterlife, and at the generational consequences of parental selfishness and suffering. Those who have the patience to let its story unfold will discover an affecting drama rooted in ultimate questions and spiritual longing.

If nothing else, Sunshine Cleaning puts a more pleasant face on the CSI-dominated entertainment landscape that's become so familiar through the multiple crime-procedurals that currently air on network television. It shows that once the grim crime-scene investigators clear out, someone else comes along to clean up the mess and, in the words of Adams' character, Rose Lorkowski, help grieving loved ones move on with their lives in some small way.

When we meet Rose, she's a house cleaner conducting an affair with an old high school flame (Steve Zahn). He was the quarterback, she was the cheerleading captain. But now he's married, and Rose's ambitions extend no further than the hope that she might one day become a Realtor. At least that's what she tells a client who turns out to be a former classmate.

Rose needs to advance professionally not only for personal fulfillment, but in order to make more money. Her son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), has had one too many discipline problems at school, and she's been given an ultimatum:  Medicate the child, or find another school for him. Both options will be costly.

Her lover, Mac, is a detective who's happy to take what Rose gives him while offering no promises of future commitment. He does, however, use his connections to help her break into the lucrative crime-scene cleaning business. With little to lose, Rose seizes the opportunity, enlisting her ne'er-do-well sister, Norah (Blunt), as a business partner. The crime scenes greet the sisters with blood-splattered ceilings and chairs, foul odors, and sometimes grieving loved ones in need of comfort. While Rose focuses on the business at hand, Norah tries to make personal connections to the victims, piecing together the shards of their lives in an effort to make sense of their deaths.

Norah's obsession with one deceased woman leads her to befriend the woman's daughter, but their budding relationship takes an unexpected direction for which Norah is unprepared. It seems Norah is better at inflicting emotional and physical damage than she is in repairing the same, and her self-destructive habits are destined to hurt Rose's business.

The sisters' different approaches are rooted in their upbringing. After their mother's untimely death, their father (Arkin) raised them on his own. He continues to care for the grown Norah but lets it be known that their early years were a great struggle for him, even as his current pursuit of get-rich-quick schemes suggests that he may not have been an altogether responsible single parent. Rose can't figure out why she's unable to find a man who will commit to her, but she enters into a budding friendship with a local store owner, Winston (Clifton Collins Jr.), who provides professional support for her new venture as well as a male role model for her troubled son.

The drama between Rose and Norah is at the root of Sunshine Cleaning—and as with Curtis Hanson's film, In Her Shoes, the more formulaic elements are overcome by excellent performances. Here it's Adams and Blunt who share the credit, playing off each other as well as Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz played off each other in Hanson's 2005 drama. Arkin is better here than he was in Little Miss Sunshine, providing a sweet parental understanding as opposed to the overbearing, foul-mouthed patriarch of that earlier film.

Sunshine Cleaning saves its strongest material for the final stretch, revealing the shattering event only hinted at earlier in the film, and giving the characters a chance to speak about the spiritual trauma inflicted by that event. As they search for answers to questions about where we go when we die, and how we might contemplate heaven when our earthly lives can seem, in one character's words, so hellish, the film reveals how the pain of life's journey can be eased by asking honest questions about God and eternity, rather than suppressing such questions. The lyrics to the film's closing song bring the film's spiritual themes into sharper focus:

Prepare yourself you know it's a must
Gotta have a friend in Jesus
So you know that when you die
He's gonna recommend you
To the spirit in the sky
Gonna recommend you
To the spirit in the sky
That's where you're gonna go when you die
When you die and they lay you to rest
You're gonna go to the place that's the best.

By the end of the film, the characters in Sunshine Cleaning haven't found the ultimate answers to their fundamental questions, but they've found each other in a new way and have discovered the power of forgiveness. It's a hopeful note on which to conclude.


Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@verizon.net.

CAUTIONS:

  • Smoking/Drinking:  Smoking of joints and cigarettes; drinking.
  • Language/Profanity:  Lord's name taken in vain; foul language; slow learners referred to as "retards"; several discussions of death and suicide; a boy wears a temporary tattoo that reads "Li'l Bastard" and listens to an explanation of what the term means; a man says a "business lie" is OK because it's different from a "life lie."
  • Sex/Nudity:  A woman conducts an affair with a married man; she's shown in bra and panties, and the man's bare backside is shown; man and woman lay down in underwear on bed and begin to make love; a wife confronts a woman who's having an affair with her husband; a woman is shown having passionless sex with a man; a woman expresses her attraction toward another woman, who is unresponsive; a woman says she's good at getting guys to want her, but not to date her or marry her.
  • Violence:  A man puts a loaded gun under his chin and we see his finger as he pulls the trigger. The bullet's impact is not shown, but the aftermath, with blood splattered on ceiling tiles, is; discussion of a finger that was shot off, and which is later shown; a blood-splattered shower wall; vomiting; a needle punctures an arm as part of a blood donation; a blood-soaked chair; a house fire; partial view of a suicide victim in a bathtub.
  • Religion:  Speculation about where people go when they die; a woman speaks out loud to her deceased mother, wondering if she can hear her and whether or not she's in heaven or not; a concluding song speaks of "going up to the spirit in the sky."