March 15, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning (03/15/09)

Lettergrade: B

One of the reasons I really liked Sunshine Cleaning is for its two leading ladies: Amy Adams and Emily Blunt. The film's naturalistic, slice-of-life story is a good one as well, although when I think back through it there are some fairly gaping and mysterious holes that were started and then somewhat abandoned part-way through (I'll get to those in a bit). Nevertheless, the picture at large is interesting, well-made, and certainly worth checking out.

The ads loudly proclaim that the film is from the same team that produced Little Miss Sunshine, although it should be emphasized that the writers and directors are completely different. I must admit that I didn't much care for the earlier movie: I found it to be awfully contrived and mostly populated by wafer-thin caricatures of people from better movies. Little Miss also pissed me off by blatantly stealing several plot points directly from National Lampoon's Vacation, right down to Aunt Edna / Alan Arkin both dying mid-way through each family's journey to California and having to be strapped to the roof of the car for the rest of the way!

Cleaning is a little more reminiscent of Amy Adams' earlier picture Junebug in style and tone as well as 2000's fantastic You Can Count On Me, which starred Laura Linney. Here, Adams' 30-something single mom is still sleeping with her old high school sweetheart Steve Zahn, who is himself is married with a family on the other side of their small New Mexico town. When her son gets kicked out of another school for misbehaving, she needs to make some money fast in order to send him to a private one. Zahn tells her that in his job as a homicide detective he's noticed that crime-scene clean-up services make an ass-load of money, so she starts a business with Blunt, her pot-smoking deadbeat sister, in order to make ends meet.

Two things about Cleaning in particular really won me over. The first is that the story unfolds in very "real" way which never really pushes the limits of credulity. For example, after cleaning up after the suicide of an older lady, Blunt seeks out and befriends the woman's estranged daughter (played by the omnipresent Mary Lynn Rajskub) without telling her that detail. When the truth eventually comes out, Rajskub reacts quietly, in a way similar to how a real person might - not with the stagey theatrics that usually come with these scenarios in movies. This philosophy extends to the rest of the movie too, which contains no grande finales or big summations of what any of the characters believe or have learned. It's not a picture which has tidy conclusions, and I really appreciated that.

The second aspect that won me over is a little more abstract: It's the film's interesting technique of not necessarily front-loading the audience with information that will simply be revealed in due course anyway, forcing us to figure out who everyone is and how well they get along with each other based on context-clues rather than clunky exposition. During the first post-coital scene between Adams and Zahn, for example, you slowly start to understand the nature of the relationship we're looking at: We're in a motel room, so one of them must be married. He seems a little more affluent and family-oriented, so it's probably him. He's offering to help her pay for more night classes, etc, which makes you wonder why he feels so much financial responsibility toward her. Eventually, we piece together that they were a couple in high school, but the details of why they split up and how they got back together are refreshingly left off-screen. It crossed my mind that Zahn might be the father of Adams' son, which might explain a lot about how they behave with each other, but my wife disagreed that that's what they were hinting at.

Other revelations, like what exactly the story is with Adams and Blunt's late mother, come into focus much more gradually, but still deliver a strong emotional punch in addition to making us reexamine certain scenes in new ways . Again, these things aren't secrets... The withholding of these details is not milked for tension, as the typical installment of Lost might do, but instead are used to tell the story in a much more interesting, unhurried way.

My main complaint, however, is that this structure also allows several plot elements to be virtually forgotten as the picture moves along. Once we've established that Adams is going into biohazard clean-up in order to afford her son's private school, to name but one instance, it is pretty much never mentioned again. When the business undergoes some setbacks later, she talks as if she only got into that unsavory line of work so she would have something in her life to be proud of. Huh? Similarly, Adams and Blunt are reprimanded for breaking several waste disposal laws early in their business venture as well as operating without the proper permits. Apart from one brief scene where Adams appears to attend a class in order to get her license, this too goes by without any actual consequences, most conspicuously the legal kind.

Sunshine Cleaning was filmed around two years ago, but has gone undistributed until now. There were several "editorial consultants" listed in the end credits, which likely indicates that the producers recut the hell out of the film before it was able to find a release. I'm sure the continued success of both female leads helped that process along as well. All this might explain why certain plot elements seem to vanish before the movie ends. Really, though, that's all just minor griping over a movie which, for the most part, works pretty well.

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