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Sunshine Cleaning

(2009) ** 1/2 R
92 min. Overture Films. Director: Christine Jeffs. Cast: Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin, Steve Zahn, Clifton Collins Jr.

/content/films/3540/1.jpgOkay, let's not bury the lead here. The first thing to be said about the warm little indie Sunshine Cleaning is that its producers aren't shy about wanting you to think of it as the next Little Miss Sunshine. For starters, it's advertised as coming "from the producers of Little Miss Sunshine." Plus it has "Sunshine" in the title. Plus it's a band-together-fight-and-make-up family dramedy, including a big-eyed moppet counseled by a profane grandfather who tries to pump up his spirits: it’s the Alan Arkin role from Little Miss Sunshine, played by—wait for it…Alan Arkin. Alright, then: Sunshine Cleaning is a conscious attempt to repeat the family-dysfunction-turned-sunny-side-up paradigm of Little Miss Sunshine. But does it work?

Yes and no. Christine Jeffs’ Sunshine Cleaning is the sort of movie you root for, hoping it’ll break through to be something special. It never quite does, but it still has the not-insignificant value of two fine actresses cast as sisters. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt star as Rose and Norah Lorkowski, who go into business together cleaning up crime scenes. Single-mother Rose recognizes that her life has gone wayward. Once the head cheerleader dating the starting quarterback, Rose never acquired enough marketable skills to get a job better than maid, which barely keeps her afloat. Adding urgency is Rose’s seven-year-old son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), whose unfocused behavior has gotten him kicked out of his class. Determined to send Oscar to a private school that won't martyr him for his quirks, Rose decides to follow up on an suggestion made by her boyfriend Mac, the selfsame quarterback from high school. Since Mac's now a cop, he's in a position to throw lucrative crime-scene cleanup jobs Rose's way. Unfortunately, Mac is also married to someone else, and unwilling to dump his wife for Rose.

Rose recruits her perpetually out-of-work sister Norah, newly fired from her job at a diner, to assist in the crime-scene cleanup, but the two quickly discover that they're in way over their heads, leading to some amusing bumbling. Luckily, a trip to an industrial cleaning-supply business leads to a friendship with its sympathetic proprietor: lonely, sweet, one-armed Winston (Clifton Collins, Jr.). Meanwhile, Norah becomes curious about the broken family represented by the first crime scene she cleans, and she decides to stalk the daughter (Mary Lynn Rajskub) of the deceased. Unfortunately, Sunshine Cleaning never locates enough incidents worthy of its characters. Rather than real life, the film feels like a screenplay come to life: never a good sign.

There's something precious and pat in the way that the cleaning jobs cleanse the sisters' souls (they still haven't exorcised the death of their own mother). The film’s indie folksiness may not be show-offy, but it still seems to be trying too hard, as in a a "trestling" date between Blunt and Rajskub's characters or, much worse, when not one but two characters use a C.B. radio to talk to heaven. All in all, Sunshine Cleaners is just worth seeing, for its acting, particularly by the leading ladies. Blunt proves again that she's incapable of a false note, and Adams expertly channels emotions off the page and through the screen to helpless viewers. You'll believe her to the core when she explains why her job—and in some part the movie—is valid: "We come into people's lives when they have experienced something profound and sad...and we help. In some small way, we help."

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Aspect ratios: 2.40:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1

Street date: 8/25/2009

Distributor: Anchor Bay Entertainment

In its home-video debut, Sunshine Cleaning comes in mirrored Blu-ray and DVD editions for collectors of either stripe. Hi-def transfers on DVD don't get better than the one found here, except of course when they're presented in full hi-def on Blu-ray. The Blu-ray reveals a greater dimensionality and detail, with fine textures and bold hues that maximize what's there in the clean source of a brand-new film. Light film grain is present for a natural, moderate, theatrical look, and a deep black level and perfectly tuned contrast complete the film's intended effect, never disrupted by digital artifacting. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix provides subtle but crisp ambience for this small-scale story.

Both Blu-ray and DVD editions feature the same bonus features, though the Blu-ray presents them in high-definition. As usual, Anchor Bay/Overture support audio commentary, though director Christine Jeffs is conspicuously absent from the extras. The commentary featuring writer Megan Holley and producer Glenn Williamson nevertheless does a good job of telling the story of the film's making, mostly from Holley's perspective having a screenplay produced for the first time. She explains her writing process and how she got her script to Williamson, as well as the script's development under the guidance of Jeffs.

"Sunshine Cleaning: A Fresh Look at Dirty Business" (11:17, HD) travels a bit sideways from the usual making-of fluff, which is a good thing. Emily Blunt and Amy Adams have a few things to say, but most of the featurette is given over to Marie FitzGerald & Dana Hooper of A&M Bio-Recovery, who talk about their work and its intersection with their personal lives, as well as how the film gets it right and finds the funny side of their work (basically, what happens when it's done by amateurs).

Last up is the film's "Trailer" (2:32, HD), and the Blu-ray disc features BD-Live support for additional online content.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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