'Sunshine Cleaning' and 'Little Miss Sunshine' have a lot in common…besides the ray of light reference in their respective titles. Both are low-budget, independent films; both share a quirky, endearing tone; both were produced by Glenn Williamson; both showcase a cranky Alan Arkin in a key supporting role; and both take place in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I also reacted similarly to both movies. While I enjoyed 'Little Miss Sunshine,' I never got swept up in the fanatical frenzy that carried the comedy to a flurry of Oscar nominations. And though I appreciate the charm and poignancy that distinguish 'Sunshine Cleaning,' Christine Jeffs' film never quite separates itself from the rest of the indie pack.
Simple, understated, and natural best describe 'Sunshine Cleaning,' the story of two sisters who start an unconventional business to combat economic strife, and achieve a new level of personal growth in the process. Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) was once the shining star of her high school – head cheerleader, main squeeze of the hunky quarterback, popularity queen – but her post-graduate life hasn't panned out. A single mother to the troubled Oscar (Jason Spevack), she now struggles to make ends meet as a maid, lives in a dumpy house, and meets a married police detective (Steve Zahn) in a sleazy no-tell motel for sexual trysts. Her life takes a drastic turn, however, when the school principal alerts her that Oscar has been licking things – a pencil sharpener, an aquarium, his teacher's leg – and needs a more "specialized" educational environment. Private schools are expensive, so to meet the impending costs, Rose takes her lover's advice and enters the lucrative crime scene cleanup profession along with her aimless, irresponsible sister, Norah (Emily Blunt).
Like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory, Rose and Norah fake their way through their first couple of jobs, battling the putrid stench of death as they wash away blood and other bodily fluids, and dispose of unclaimed, contaminated personal belongings. The two also console survivors and try to detach themselves from the deceased lives they so intimately touch. "In some small way," Rose says, "we help." And as they bungle along and scrub away filth, the sisters also begin to address the mess in their own lives, and try to eradicate it with varying degrees of success.
'Sunshine Cleaning' is a small, intimate film, and its small moments – a reaction shot here, a throwaway line there – carry the most weight. The script, by first-time screenwriter Megan Holley, develops the characters well and infuses subtle humor into several oddball situations, but to its credit, the movie never wallows in its eccentricity. Its unique subject matter is merely a springboard for a fairly typical tale of the maturation process, populated by characters who are unusual enough to pique interest, yet normal enough to remain relatable. Also, in these challenging fiscal times, the themes of entrepreneurialism and economic desperation hit home.
After playing a fairy princess in 'Enchanted' and an angelic nun in 'Doubt,' Adams at last comes down to earth and files a refreshingly natural portrayal that showcases her understated beauty, bright personality, and wry sense of humor. 'Sunshine Cleaning' isn't a particularly heavy load, but she carries it with ease, and lights up every scene in which she appears. Blunt makes a fine foil as the more emotional Norah, and though it's difficult to divorce her from the delectably bitchy Emily in 'The Devil Wears Prada' and accept her American accent, Blunt's acting chops are sharp enough to deftly manage her character's wild mood swings. Arkin won't be winning any Oscars for his role, but he meets comic expectations, while Zahn nicely represses his manic energy to craft a rare straightforward portrayal.
'Sunshine Cleaning' doesn't have much lasting impact, but it's a well-made dual character study with a spicy slice-of-life premise that holds interest. Though the pedestrian direction won't bowl anyone over, the unaffected acting and textured script are strong enough to merit attention, as well as a rental from those who appreciate offbeat fare.
Like many indie films, Anchor Bay's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer of 'Sunshine Cleaning' often flaunts a harsh, gritty look that reflects the movie's low-budget origins. Terrific contrast during exterior shots helps the image achieve a striking crispness at times, and dimly lit scenes often exude a lovely glow. Many interiors employ natural light, so some scenes look rougher than others, but they still blend well into the whole. Textures and facial features possess good detail levels that add luster to both Amy Adams' simple beauty and the rugged New Mexico landscapes, while nicely saturated colors provide welcome splashes of vibrancy. (The deep blue of the Southwest sky and bold yellow of state license plates are especially arresting.) Fleshtones look natural, and black levels are sufficiently rich and solid – a very good thing, considering how many scenes were shot at night.
A fine smattering of grain lends the picture a lovely film-like feel, and no imperfections, such as dirt or scratches, mar the print. No digital doctoring could be detected, and annoyances like banding and mosquito noise are absent, too. For a film of this sort, this is an above average effort, and should play well on any display.
A surprisingly strong Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track complements the film, delivering more nuanced audio than many higher profile, bigger budgeted pictures. Almost from the start, the mix provides crisp, resonant details that punch up quiet scenes and enhance realism. Though most of the sound emanates from the front channels, marvelously distinct stereo separation expands the audio field, and there's just enough ambient bleed into the rears to produce a pleasant, if faint, surround experience.
Dialogue needs a bit of a boost, however. Stronger prioritization would eliminate the muffling that afflicts a few lines here and there, though on the whole, the actors are easy to understand. The subwoofer stays silent much of the time, yet a gunshot early in the film possesses nice heft, and the rumble of a freight train sounds bold and full. In addition, the subtle music enjoys fine clarity, warmth, and excellent fidelity, filling the room with well-modulated, dynamic audio.
Many independent films settle for mediocre sound, but this high-quality track makes 'Sunshine Cleaning' a notable exception to the rule and helps immerse us more fully in its simple story.
Only a couple of extras dot the disc, and though enjoyable enough, they're hardly essential.
'Sunshine Cleaning' may not be a diamond in the rough, but it's a thoughtful, entertaining trifle that seamlessly integrates comedy and drama into its offbeat framework. Fine performances and colorful characters keep this light, uplifting tale afloat, while a solid video transfer and stellar audio will please high-def fans. Skimpy extras don't do the disc any favors, but they can't keep it from meriting a good, long look.
All disc reviews at High-Def DVD Digest are completed using the best consumer HD home theater products currently on the market. More about our gear.