After her stellar 2004/5 (and even coming into 2007/8), we here at hoopla.nu pontificated that Rachel McAdams was the next big thing, confidently predicting screen greatness for the standout young actress of the time. Her relative absence from the screen since then, however, has allowed Amy Adams to bolt to the front of audience consciousness, and Adams’ variety of role selection and uniformly excellent performances mean she must now be at the top of the wish list for any producer. Roles in small productions like Sunshine Cleaning mix with turns in Disney productions like Enchanted, while serious offerings like Doubt are balanced by appearances in films like Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian – Adams is clearly a versatile and accomplished performer.
In Sunshine Cleaning, Adams must carry much of the load as Rose, a single mother to a gifted young boy, big sister to troubled Norah (Emily Blunt) and daughter to a man who at best could be called eccentric (Alan Arkin). When her high school sweetheart suggests she change from cleaning houses to cleaning up after crime scenes – a far more lucrative cleaning gig – Rose will enlist Norah to help, giving them a chance to grow closer together and recover from their shared childhood trauma.
What Sunshine Cleaning does well it does very well indeed, however there are problems that just might frustrate some viewers beyond their ‘did I pay good money for this?’ threshold. By defining its leading female characters by their employment failures and relationship dramas, the script does Rose and Norah a disservice that is hard to forgive. The balance between suggesting how two people will be judged by their acquaintances – most bluntly by forcing Rose to attend a baby shower for an old high school cheer squad friend who is far more successful in the traditional sense – and then asking viewers to use their minds and see into the characters souls is a fine line to walk. Oftentimes it seems a little easy and trite, meaning the pay-off when the audience do see their hearts-of-gold shine through is sullied. The handling of flashbacks that will eventually reveal one of the reasons for Rose and particularly Norah’s disaffection is also a little clumsy, although in retrospect one can see the cogs turning with this injury informing Norah’s decisions when confronted by the loneliness of some clients’ deaths.
Amy Adams’ performance, however, has to reach into the hearts and minds of filmgoers and shake them out of their cynicism. Rose is a bundle of contradictions, liable to shed a discreet tear while reciting her mantras (‘You are strong, You are powerful, You can do anything’) and yet bolshy enough to fake her way into a competitive small business environment. Adams handles every moment with skill and aplomb – no more so than in the scene at the baby shower, in which she is required to portray social uncertainty and lack of confidence developing into belief in her worth and (for the first time in years) hope for her future.
Blunt’s take on Norah is marginally less successful, although she certainly does an adequate job of Norah’s conflicts and destructive personality traits, while allowing her moments of truth, particularly in scenes shared with flashback sequences of her mother. Alan Arkin appears to enjoy playing unconventional old men in films with ‘Sunshine’ in the title, and revels in his turn here, while supporting contributions from Jason Spevack, Steve Zahn and especially Clifton Collins Jr. add to the appeal of an already strong cast.
Writer Megan Holley and director Christine Jeffs seem to have been content to hint and tease at other story threads without feeling compelled to explore them fully, which gives Sunshine Cleaning the sense of being self-contained and focussed. Several subplots are left unexplained and probably unfinished, and the film finishes in an ambiguous manner that forces the audience to imagine the outcomes for many of the major and minor characters. This ambiguity is probably a strength, although it may leave some viewers with a feeling of wanting more. The film runs only 91 minutes, which contributes to the sensation that the audience is seeing only a snapshot of the whole picture.
While it may be frustrating for some, Sunshine Cleaning’s subtle strengths and wonderful lead performance mean it should be a satisfying outing for most. Amy Adams enhances her reputation with almost every film she graces with her presence, and although the aforementioned competition between her and Rachel McAdams is probably imagined, that we have two extremely versatile and competent lead actresses in this age group is wonderful indeed.Rating: