55 – Sunshine Cleaning:
Anyone who has ever had to hear me go on about this movie will probably roll their eyes when they see that I’ve finally done a review of it. This is actually a pretty recent addition to the list. We’re talking it getting added while I was on the hiatus over the summer. I can’t remember what I bumped in favour of it, so I guess it wasn’t anything special. To me, a great film always used to have to be big. It had to be epic. It had to be everywhere. It had to wow you with anything big – whether it be an explosive blockbuster like The Avengers or a dramatic tragedy like Atonement. When I saw this, I learned a new definition of great. Greatness can sneak up on you and floor you without even realising it. Greatness can stay with you for days after you’ve initially experienced it. Greatness can hit you without having to do a single big thing.
Believe me, no one’s more surprised than I am that I’m saying such things towards a movie that’s about a god damn cleaning service.
In yet another example of misaimed marketing, trailers made this movie look like a quirky comedy with a lot of darkly hilarious scenarios (see the famous mattress scene). It opens with a stranger walking into a department store where they sell guns – and shooting his own face off!
As this movie ain’t called The Sixth Sense, shotgun guy can no longer qualify as our protagonist. So we meet the real leads of the story:
And her younger sister Norah.
It’s interesting to watch this, as it’s a very early performance from Amy Adams and Emily Blunt respectively. Both of them are now well established as some of the most talented actresses working in Hollywood today. Indeed, both headlined two major studio releases over the last year – Amy with Nocturnal Animals and Arrival, and Emily with The Huntsman: Winter’s War and The Girl On The Train. Here they had both come off the heels of their breakout roles – Enchanted and The Devil Wears Prada respectively – so they were still in the process of building up their impressive bodies of work.
The Lorkowski sisters are a pretty standard pair; Rose is the responsible, do-the-right-thing older sister. Norah is the flaky, angsty, younger sister. Norah opens the film sleeping in late for work – as a waitress – completely botching things when she does turn up, and walking out after a bad fight with her boss. She’s also still living at home with her scatter-brained father Joe (Alan Arkin). Rose’s work life is a little better – in that she can hold down a job. But it’s clear she doesn’t necessarily like working as a cleaning lady. She finds some relief by arranging several meetings it motels with a local cop called Mac (Steve Zahn). They were high school sweethearts, but ended up marrying another girl called Heather. Amy Adams seems to make a habit out of being ‘the other woman’…
I actually don’t think it’s a coincidence that she gets cast in that role a lot. Amy Adams is very good at playing what TV Tropes calls ‘The Woobie’. As in someone who we instantly want to root for and feel sorry for. Participating in an affair is viewed as a pretty low thing – and the other woman is usually viewed as an evil floozy and homewrecker. Casting a doe-eyed actress to play one however turns her into a deeper character. Rose is after all a good-hearted woman. She’s not perfect but we still root for her. Even if she is making secret rendezvous with another woman’s husband. What’s more is that she has a child – a seven-year-old called Oscar. When she leaves to meet Mac, he’s babysat by Norah. That makes her ‘Aunt Norah’, doesn’t it?
Admit it, you laughed.
During Rose’s liaison with Mac, he talks about a clean-up crew at one of his crime scenes. They charged $3000 to clean up after shotgun guy – and he recommends getting into that business. Work advice goes all around this evening, as Rose tries to give Norah a lecture when she arrives home. The sisters do however momentarily bond over a movie on TV that had a diner scene in it. It doesn’t seem to be the right one, as there was “no pie” in it.
The next day when Rose is at work, she discovers she’s cleaning the house of an old high school friend. Things are suitably awkward since Paula is married, living in a lovely house and is a qualified estate agent – while Rose’s heyday was when she was the head cheerleader in high school. Paul still gives her an invite to her upcoming baby shower though. Rose’s day doesn’t get much better when she’s called into Oscar’s school. The school apparently want to put him on medication because he’s got a curious habit of licking everything. I went through that phase and no one had to medicate me…
Rose pulls Oscar out of school, and decides that he’s better off in a private one. But as she’s a lowly cleaning lady without two cents to rub together, she needs to make money fast. And as Walter White has already cornered the market on cooking meth, Rose instead has to take Mac up on his offer for that crime scene clean-up business. She drags the unemployed Norah along to their first job; cleaning up after a domestic disturbance.
The trailers milked the hell out of these scenes, making it look as if the movie was made up of cringe comedy scenarios involving this kind of work. While the sisters are scrubbing someone’s remains off the shower, Joe and Oscar do a bit of business in town themselves. Joe tries to sell various things door-to-door, while Oscar is a bit of a hustler. Well the goods themselves appear to be legit – so it’s not a complete hustle. Later on, Rose has been put in such a good mood that she practically jumps Mac in the motel later. It turns out she quite likes the whole crime scene clean-up business. She herself puts a little damper on the proceedings by randomly asking “why did you pick Heather?”
Rose and Norah’s next job brings them to a trailer park – to a house that’s little better than a pigsty. Norah even throws up at the smell – which unfortunately she’ll now have to clean up too. Then comes the famous mattress scene. I’ll show it here in its (sadly censored) glory.
At the next job, they find some personal belongings. The woman who died has a stack of photos of her daughter. Norah wants to find the girl and tell her, rationalising it as “wouldn’t you want to know if this was mom?” – and we realise that we have not seen the girls’ mother at all.
Some point later, the sisters go to a cleaning supplies store. It’s fronted by a man called Winston. He’s played by Clifton Collins Jr, and he only has one arm. This dude sure likes to play disabled huh?
The sisters also overhear some professionals complaining about a “couple of amateurs” poaching all the good jobs from them. Winston seems to cop on that Rose and Norah are the amateurs in question, and give them all the paperwork and information they need to dispense with the amateur label. Afterwards, Norah takes a trip to find Lynn, the daughter whose pictures she found at work. Rather than breaking the news, she just shares an uncomfortable moment in the elevator with her and claims she wasn’t stalking her.
Rose isn’t having a good day either – as Mac stands her up for their date. Norah is then seen taking out a box of what we can assume is her mother’s things. We can also assume that mommy died. This is also the first time that we see Norah show a softer side. But on a happier note, Rose picks a name for the business.
Things are really picking up for the business, as Winston offers to sign Rose up for a seminar to get certified. The sisters also splash out on a van, and get an ad in the paper. A montage also shows business picking up, and the money rolling in. Things go slightly south for Rose when she’s in the store – and Heather walks in.
Heather as in Mac’s wife.
Yeah, she knows.
On the brighter side, Norah sees Lynn again. And asks her out to a party. Judging from how Lynn rather seductively eats the candy off her candy necklace – we can assume she’s a lesbian. And she thinks she’s being asked out on a date. The original script makes it clear that Norah might be gay too, and she and Lynn have some more obviously romantic scenes. There was even a kiss that was filmed but cut from the final product. Norah’s booty call Randy also had a larger role, giving the implication that Norah had no interest in men. The final film leaves it ambiguous as to whether Norah is interested in Lynn romantically or in a kindred spirits sort of friendship.
The film takes a slightly more sombre tone as Sunshine Cleaning gets the call to clean up after a suicide. Norah decides to blow off some steam by taking Lynn out on what could ambiguously be called a date. She shares a couple of details about her own mother; firstly the significance of the diner scenes is that their mother got to be a featured extra in a movie of the week that they never saw – her line was “I recommend the peacan pie”. Secondly, she suicided and the two daughters found her. Even though Norah talks about this rather casually, the subject isn’t glossed over. She takes Lynn to go tressling – which is the act of standing under the bridge as the train goes by…
Norah gets a killer adrenaline rush out of it. But as the train zooms over her, she flashes back to the day she and Rose found their mother’s body. This is another subtle scene that manages to be so powerful. The way Emily Blunt goes from euphoria to overwhelming sadness is one of her most underrated scenes.
Another subtly powerful scene comes when Mac drops by the house. He’s giving Rose a present for her business cards. Unfortunately she gives him the boot; breaking things off right there. The scene isn’t dramatic. Neither actor even raises their voice. But you can feel their pain. You can feel their sadness. Rose has fallen very far from her glory days – head cheerleader, quarterback boyfriend, most popular girl in school – and Mac was the one connection to those days she had left. Her one link to the time when she was queen. But she’s finally realised that she can’t have the life she wants with him. She has to let him go and it kills her to do so. To a lesser extent, Steve Zahn conveys a lot of nice subtle emotion with “that’s it then” as he walks out of her life.
On the day of Paula’s baby shower, Rose gets a call about a job from an insurance company. That means big bucks, but it would also mean missing the shower. She tries to take a third option by getting Norah to go and get it started, while she foists Oscar onto Winston in the cleaning store (since Joe refuses to watch him). She catches up with old high school friends, thoroughly grossing them out when she mentions what she does now. But in the process of explaining what Sunshine Cleaning does, she has a little epiphany. She realises that she actually loves what she does. Her business involves coming into people’s lives and helping them out in some small way. They’re only cleaning up a mess, but they do help a lot. Rose also realises that she doesn’t need the approval of her high school classmates, and takes off to help Norah with the job. Unfortunately, Norah has burned the house down.
She lit a candle to take away the smell, and got distracted trying to catch a cat. But sadly, all anyone’s going to remember is the towering inferno where the house used to be. Now Sunshine Cleaning owes several thousand dollars, and Rose doesn’t have insurance yet. She relays all this information to Winston in another scene that gives Amy Adams a real chance to show off how well she can go tragically mad on-screen.
“There’s not a lot that I am good at. I’m good at getting guys to want me. Not date me or marry me, but want me. I am good at that! And cheering…I was really good at cheering…but it’s not as marketable as you’d think.”
Some time after this, Norah finally breaks the truth to Lynn. The latter storms off and says not to call her, leaving Norah feeling even worse. It’s quite interesting to read the original script and then watch the final film – because Norah’s character is quite different. This scenario has Lynn finding her pictures in the house when they’re about to fool around. Norah would also refuse to take responsibility for the fire incident, and the apology she gives later is said to be insincere. Emily Blunt however really softens Norah through her performance; despite her rough edge and bitchy behaviour, you can tell she’s a kind girl deep down who just has no direction in life. So presumably the scenes were changed to make Norah more sympathetic.
Oscar has his 8th birthday party, and the sisters grudgingly apologise to each other. The above-mentioned apology in the original script was said to be insincere on Norah’s side – but in the film it’s clear she means it. She also tells Rose that she doesn’t need to take care of her anymore – and it looks as if all is forgiven. Rose doesn’t even object to Norah getting Oscar a rub-on tattoo that says “Lil’ Bastard”. Later that night, Rose is watching the TV…
Yes, that’s the one. Pecan pie and all. I’ll just let the screen-caps do the gushing for me.
Following that is my favourite scene in the whole movie. Rose gets on the CB in the Sunshine Cleaning van, and stages an impromptu conversation with her mother. What’s notable is that there’s no Oscar-Baity crying fit, there’s no inspirational speech with swelling music and there are no other tactics like that. It’s just a very subtle, emotional scene where Amy Adams conveys so much emotion.
“I don’t know if you’re in heaven. But I know you’re not here. And that is too bad for you. Because you really missed out. You’ve missed out on some really great stuff. I hope you can hear me.”
We wrap things up when Joe reveals he’s sold the house to pay off Rose’s debts, and he’s starting up a new cleaning business for Rose to help him with. The denouement shows Oscar finally at the private school Rose had been hoping for, as well as Norah going for a road trip to ‘find herself’ – the kitten from the burnt house in her lap. The original script saw her going to work for the Gorilla Foundation.
So Sunshine Cleaning is a movie I did not expect to love. I expected to like it, but not love it. And in the several months it’s been since I saw it, I’ve been gushing about it to everyone. As I mentioned many times in the review, it’s a masterpiece of subtle story-telling. Christine Jeffs’s brilliantly subtle direction, and Megan Holley’s layered screenplay come together in a way that works unbelievably well. It hasn’t achieved the cult success of a lot of other independent films, but it’s still highly respected in indie circles. I gushed enough about everything that was great as I went through the review, so I feel it’s only fair to not waste your time any longer in this conclusion.
I recommend the pecan pie too – as well as the grades.
Story? You would not expect a Slice of Life about a cleaning business to produce such a layered and emotional story, but there you go. There were however a couple of things that could have used more attention – namely the Lynn subplot and Joe’s character. A-
Characters? Emily Blunt herself said that the parts for women tend to be better in independent films, and this is an example of that. Two great female leads with nice arcs and some deep characterization. A+
Performances? This is easily in the top five of Amy Adams’s performances, even if Enchanted will always be my favourite. Emily Blunt likewise elevates the character of Norah into a beautifully tragic figure as only she can. The two actresses actually thought of Steve Zahn as the real dark-horse of the film. A+
Visuals? This is a movie where I really want to commend the wardrobe choices for the characters. Some great use of clothing to distinguish the sisters’ personalities. B
Anything Else? The guitar/alternative score really added a lot to the scenes. B+
We move from sunshine to darkness quite literally – with Dark City up next.