Sunshine Cleaning
R1 - America - Anchor Bay Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Ethan C. Stevenson (23rd August 2009).
The Film

During its theatrical run-up Starz/Anchor Bay/Overture Films heavily promoted the fact that their new picture "Sunshine Cleaning" was from the producers of one time Oscar (and critical) darling "Little Miss Sunshine" (2006). I have to admit that this strategy worked – I wouldn’t have given the film a second look without that precursor; not that I was suddenly attracted to see it in theaters but, I thought, “hey, there’s something to see on video…” Now that "Sunshine Cleaning" is making its way to DVD (and Blu-ray), I’m somewhat saddened to see that the distributor is still playing up the "Little Miss Sunshine" connection because, after watching the film, I’ve realized that it quite-rightly can stand on its own. "Sunshine Cleaning" doesn’t need an irrelevant relationship that it has with another film pushed to the top of the one sheet; it’s got plenty to like (and promote itself with) all by its lonesome.

The comparison to "Little Miss Sunshine" is not totally unwarranted – the former film shares some completely anecdotal and superficial similarities with the newer "Sunshine." Both are products of Big Beach Films (home of producers Marc Turtletaub and Peter Saraf) with the word “sunshine” in the title, both feature Alan Arkin as a grumpy-but-loveable grandfather who has a close relationship with his grandchild, each film was written by first timers and both are about dysfunctional families from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Oh, the two films also use yellow prominently in their posters/promotional artwork. Like I said – superficial, anecdotal similarities. They share some interesting coincidences perhaps, but otherwise, the two films are worlds apart. Chiefly, whereas "Little Miss Sunshine" was primarily a comedy with dramatic moments, "Sunshine Cleaning" is absolutely a serious drama that has occasional bursts of dark comedy.

Rose Lorkowski’s (Amy Adams) life didn’t go the way she planned. Once one of the most popular girls in High School – a cheerleader with a boyfriend on the football team – she’s now cleaning houses, husbandless but, maintaining an affair with her old high school flame (Steve Zahn) who’s married with kids, and desperately trying to hold together a family literally on the verge of shambles. Her father, Joe (Alan Arkin), a grifter looking to make a quick buck, albeit well meaning, is nonetheless a bit of a sleaze. Norah (Emily Blunt), her sister, is one messed up chick – deeply affected by the suicide of their mother, she’s not one to hold steady employment and has “issues.” Oscar (Jason Spevack), her young son, is a troubled boy, constantly in the principals office for “strange behavior.” Rose is desperately trying to hold her family together – and, truthfully she’s succeeding, if only just. That is, until it all comes crashing down around her.

Two events quickly force Rose to do something with her life. Firstly, Oscar, now expelled from school for licking a teacher’s leg, puts Rose in a tough spot: her only choice is to enroll her son at an expensive private academy, one she can’t afford on her incredibly small “maid” salary. Second, while cleaning a home far more luxurious than her own, Rose is approached by the homeowner who is, as it turns out, an old high school friend. Somewhat ashamed and embarrassed by the situation she flees. It is a combination of these two incidents that leads our protagonist to the conclusion: she’s let her life pass her by and she has nothing, accept a son she can’t financially support, to show for it. It is in this moment that Rose decides to take charge of her life; with help from her ex, who’s a police detective, she gets an in into the burgeoning market of crime scene cleanup. Realizing this may actually be both a lucrative business opportunity and her chance to make something of herself, Rose enlists the help of her sister and together they form Sunshine Cleaning: a friendlier crime-scene sanitation company.

I’ve seen it claimed that Emily Blunt steals the show from Adams, upstaging her fictional sister with the portrayal of Norah. This is only partly true: first, both actresses do a stupendous job in this film – it really doesn’t matter whose “better” because they’re both great. However, Blunt – putting on her best American accent (it still seems wrong to me; knowing that she’s really English, I always imagine words are going to come out differently, no matter the role as long as she’s pretending to be an American) – plays the more compelling character, the more troubled one, the one who’s crazier, allowing the actress access to a wider range of emotions. I see it then as not that Blunt is a more capable actress (not to diminish her in anyway as she is, of course, extremely talented), but rather that she was just cast in the role that had more breadth. Amy Adams’ “straight (wo)man” role – the measured, stable one, holding everything together; the more level-headed character that the audience empathizes and more easily connects with – seems less lively than Blunt’s blunt, sarcastic, unmoved Norah. Not that Rose isn’t a strong character, she is and Adams plays her well, but she is simply less animated than her sister. And that, I think, is why people are more impressed with Blunt; in another film, Adams’ Rose would be the psychiatrist to Norah the schizophrenic. Both could be excellent portrayals but the actor playing the psychotic simply has more to do with their character – the same is true in "Sunshine Cleaning."

The script, from first time screenwriter Megan Holley, is extremely well written; the characters are fully developed and when combined with the perfect cast and strong direction from Christine Jeffs, you have an excellent product on multiple levels. There’s a delicate balance between the drama and comedy; comedic moments are carefully placed into the story, making the events seem natural and, therefore you easily accept them. Likewise with the drama – it sort of just happens and the filmmakers let it; this is subtle craftsmanship – more of a slight nudge, nudge than a repeated bashing over the head. The film is often about nuance – what is unsaid or that whispered, a throwaway line is important but it doesn’t call attention. Unuttered emotions are captured in quick reaction shots during conversations – the characters don’t explain with words and they don’t have to. If you’re watching, you’ll get it.

"Sunshine Cleaning" isn’t perfect – I found some issues with the pacing, the end seems a little tacked on and this is hardly the next great film but it accomplishes the goal it sets out to do and it does it well.

Video

Two versions of the film are offered on a single DVD-9. Upon startup, viewers are prompted with the choice of watching the film is 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen or chopped, cropped and altered to fit 4x3 screens. The 4x3 transfer is an abomination and a waste of space; it shouldn’t even be a choice; all it does is ruin careful composition and hog needed space away from the proper widescreen presentation.

As for the actual qualities of the disc: this is an adequate standard definition image. Colors are mostly muted and, at times, frankly garish, favoring desaturated, pastel tones. This is fitting for the film; its crime-ridden locations wouldn’t exactly feel “right” if they were all bubblegum pinks and rainbow hues. The picture is flat with little to no pop but, contrast is otherwise good; blacks are exceptional. Compression is on the wrong side of mediocre – not awful, but you can tell that the film is sharing already limited space with a second encode. And as always, even when upconverted, the 480i source is sorely lacking in resolution and detail. I would assume that the concurrently released Blu-ray would be the preferred viewing option – with more bandwidth and additional resolution via the 1080p format, the DVD's technical limitations (noise, mostly and lack of detail) would be otherwise eradicated. While it won’t pump up the colors, at least in high definition you’ll get closer to the intended theatrical experience.

Audio

There isn’t much to say about the films English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Given the fact that this is a low-budget “indie” drama/comedy, I didn’t really expect much from "Sunshine Cleaning" in the audio department. And, well, it’s good that I didn’t expect much because this is a fairly average mix – the film is… you guessed it… front heavy, dialog driven and meager. Speech is intelligible and the mix is clean and well balanced, but otherwise standard fare. I have a feeling that this is a fairly close representation as to how the film is supposed to sound; although the DVD's Dolby track is inherently a bit compressed – the lossless Blu-ray, I am sure, is preferred if you’re HD-equipped as it should have better clarity and depth. A Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 surround track is also included.
Subtitles are offered in Spanish and English for the deaf and hearing impaired.

Extras

Extras are slim but satisfying on "Sunshine Cleaning" including a standard, factual audio commentary, a brief featurette and a few bonus trailers. It would have been nice to see a production documentary or a few more featurettes (and some deleted scenes would have been the cherry on top) but, eh, what you get is what you get. All of the video-based material is 16x9-enhanced.

The audio commentary, featuring screenwriter Megan Holley and producer Glenn Williamson, is a track that’s worth a listen for fans of the film. Nothing overly extraordinary about this commentary, just standard discussion on characters, the script and casting – but, at least it’s something. And at least the participants are well spoken. The fact that the track is missing director Christine Jeffs is slightly disappointing – her presence certainly would have added worth, but her absence is not the end of the world.

“Sunshine Cleaning: A Fresh Look At A Dirty Business” is a featurette which runs for 11 minutes and 17 seconds. This isn’t your standard, crummy EPK or all-to-brief behind-the-scenes featurette; instead this short outing is a look into the lives of two women who actually do the job depicted in the film. They give comments on the film; their reactions to how the inexperienced sisters handle the work is interesting. Again, not amazing, but you get what you get.

The film’s theatrical trailer runs for 2 minutes and 32 seconds.

A collection of Bonus trailers round off the extras. Some play pre-menu and are for:

- "Paper Heart" runs for 2 minutes 2 seconds.
- "Last Chance Harvey" on DVD and Blu-ray trailer runs 2 minutes 38 seconds.
- "Crash" (2008) runs 1 minute.
- "Henry Poole is Here" runs for 2 minutes 20 seconds.
- "Table for Three" runs 2 minutes 12 seconds.
- "The Visitor" 2 minutes 32 seconds.
- "Sleepwalking" 2 minutes 32 seconds.

Packaging

The single DVD is packed inside one of those new Viva Eco-box cases; a word on these: they’re awful, faux-environmentally friendly, flimsy terribleness-in-a-box. A nice embossed cardboard slip-cover is also included.

Overall

The Film: B Video: C+ Audio: C+ Extras: C- Overall: B-

 


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