On Our Own With Sunshine Cleaning

Sunshine Cleaning, the new film by Christine Jeffs and Megan Holley, has been done a great disservice, and that's as good a place to begin as anywhere. A deeply moving, fiercely intelligent film about a working-class family struggling to stay afloat has been falsely presented, in an act of marketing malpractice, as a cutesy, oh-so-mischievous parade of twee and cleverness. Every trailer, poster and billboard, with their booming promise/threat of "From the producers of Little Miss Sunshine" and predictable heaping of quasi-indie-ready quirk, is a betrayal. Sunshine Cleaning is a portrait, worthy of pre-sappy James L. Brooks or post-sardonic John Sayles, of an American family suffering the worst of Bush's ownership society, and still managing to cohere via some fragment of a belief in the basic goodness of people.

Oh, and it's funny too.

There's so much to appreciate about this simple, honest film, and so little space in which to express it. Let's begin with the basic plotline: Rose, who isn't played so much as embodied by Amy Adams in a bravura performance, is a single working mother in Albuquerque, New Mexico, living with her elementary-school-age son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), who gives some of the signals of high-functioning Aspergers Syndrome, her younger, twenty-something sister, Norah (Emily Blunt), who takes underachiever pride in staying at home and losing a variety of jobs, and her emotionally distant, deteriorating father, Joe (Alan Arkin).

This is one of those long-forgotten families, forgotten by American movies at least, straddling the line between working class and working poor, their terror at the lack of a social safety net beneath them "should something happen" coloring almost every decision they make, doing their best to keep the basic family budget up and running. (When's the last major-studio, national-release film you remember with such a backdrop? North Country? Erin Brockovich? Norma Rae?)

About ten years back, Rose was head cheerleader, prom queen, dating the football star, holder of every high-school popularity-contest title, the envy of her classmates...but then something happened, something we've never quite filled in on, though we can guess, and she currently works for a cleaning service, cleaning pool parties at the houses of her classmates who married rich and live in the upper-middle-class suburbs. Other than the regular humiliation of seeing old peers in new settings, the main vestige of her old life is her half-hearted motel affair with the former football star, now a married cop, Mac (Steve Zahn). (This is a film that places a significant amount of trust in its audience, slowly leaking out its backstory in dribs and drabs, never quite confirming some of our suspicions.)

He strings her along rather cruelly, always pretending to be about to pay for her Real Estate classes, the ones that she thinks will make her a licensed RE agent, and pull her family out of working poverty. He never quite delivers, and yet always seems just about to hand over the money. Think about that. This film, in a subplot alone, is more honest about the constraints in which real people live, has more progressive guts to talk about the way that gender roles and money keep working women in shitty situations, then most films have in their entire being.

Working as a maid pays the bills, until an incident with her son, which I won't reveal here, requires her to find the money to send him to a private school - and Mac has recently mentioned that it pays a lot of money to specialize in cleaning crime scenes - suicides, most often, but the occasional accident, altercation turned violent, the very occasional murder. And so, with a grim sense of duty, she opens Sunshine Cleaning with her still-living-at-home sister, cleaning up blood and wondering just what kind of economy leaves her so profoundly on her own, and makes this the only way she can keep the family afloat.

(Please trust me that this is a comedy - a dark comedy, but a comedy nonetheless.)

It's about this time that the film relieves some of the pressure on its audience, as Rose and Norah meet more people that have been pushed to the margins, and use the job as an excuse to really talk to each other, something they've found increasingly difficult to do in recent years. Rose makes a friend, at least at first, with Winston (Clifton Collins, Jr.), a pony-tailed, ex-hippie seller of biohazard-sanitation equipment who walks her through how to become certified. A reviewer of the film might be tempted to say that Winston happens to have one arm - but the film makes clear that the world won't allow him to treat it as incidental. ("Did you see the creepy guy with one arm?" Norah asks Rose, grinning. "He wasn't creepy," Rose rejoins, clearly offended. Norah, uncowed, replies "Of course he's creepy - he has one arm." The film almost seems to sigh at the world.) On her own end, Norah makes an effort to track down Lynn (Mary Lynn Raskjub), the daughter of a suicide victim they clean up after, to give her the effects she picked up at the house - and finds herself not quite able to do so.

Sunshine Cleaning is a film with serious secrets, that slowly but surely lets you into the world of its characters and gives you unexpected pieces of information, and this is about the point in the film that I'll have to stop describing if I'm to keep those secrets intact - I can't describe the nature of the relationship between the various characters without ruining the experience of seeing the film for the first time.

Sunshine Cleaning is not a perfect film, and there are little flaws - Oscar is a little bit too much of precocious child, and his conversations with his grandfather are a little too precious. The pace is a little off at times, and a device involving CB radios earlier in the film never quite pays off. These are all legitimate citations of bullshit.

But consider all the bullshit the film does not commit - there are major, major conflicts with no reconciliation. Relationships end messily and quietly, and are not started back up. There are no confessions of love, or even an explicit acknowledgment that a given relationship has taken on a romantic nature.

In short, we're willing to forgive the little pieces of Sunshine Cleaning that are tied up in an unconvincingly tidy ribbon box because so much of it isn't. We witness so much pain handed to Rose, so much in her life that she's given and told simply to "clean this," that it can be difficult to watch. The small victories she's handed are so well-earned, so plausible, that we have to stifle our urge to stand up and cheer.

And they are small, realistic victories indeed. Able to feel proud when you justify your work at a baby shower. Finally catching that glimpse of a lost, dear family member on TV late at night, feeling like some small puzzle's been solved somewhere. The few instances of bullshit in the film stand out so much because there's so relatively little.

These characters are not perfect people. In a lot of cases, they're not pleasant people. But they are flawed, conflicted, good people. I wanted to continue spending time with them, much as one does after an engrossing novel. I wanted to hug them, and tell them everything would be alright. How often does a movie give us that?