Three years after Little Miss Sunshine became the little Indie that could, came another film from several of the same producers. This one was also shot in New Mexico, with a precocious kid in the center, Alan Arkin as the outspoken grandfather, a dysfunctional family that ultimately rallies around each other no matter how weird or hard it is, and the word “sunshine” in the title.
But Sunshine Cleaning is no clone and certainly no comedy. Still, it’s strong enough to step in the ring with the champion and throw a few hard punches of its own. Both are a breath of fresh air (well, the air in Cleaners can get a little putrid), because the only super-heroics are done by damaged people just trying to get by.
From a Dad’s point-of-view, Alan Arkin’s expert timing provides some of the comic high points for both films, and his soulful screen presence as family patriarch gives them heft. In Little Miss Sunshine, his social inappropriateness is more extreme and, because of that, more hilarious. But he’s funny in Sunshine Cleaning, too and, as in the earlier film, we can see that his comedic missteps are motivated by love for his family.
Sunshine Cleaning is a film with death hanging all over it, with the intent to instruct us in lessons about how to love life. Rose (Amy Adams) is a single mom, going broke, trapped in a stupid post-high school affair, and with a kid who needs special attention. Rose is ready for a change, and she finds it in a new career — cleaning up crime scenes. Basically, after the CSI dudes take the bodies and run, she and her sister Norah (Emily Blunt) come in and clean up the mess. Their mother took her own life when they were little kids, and especially for Norah, this brings all kinds of feelings, long suppressed, to the surface. With her life spiraling out of control, it’s her role as a mother that keeps her grounded, and her role as a daughter that provides her salvation.
The Defending Champion
Little Miss Sunshine is one the best acted and best cast films I’ve ever seen. On the surface level, it’s the story of a little girl’s dream to win a beauty pageant and the family road trip to get her where she needs to be, even if it involves all of them overcoming their own issues (or at least temporarily setting them aside) in order to do bolster the daughter’s self-esteem and pull the family together. The fact that children’s beauty contests can be kind of creepy isn’t even considered until the film’s third act, when you realize the filmmaker’s had more to say than they let on. It’s a sweet-tempered film that’s also insanely funny, with each character’s idiosyncrasies playing perfectly against the others. The movie served as Abigail Breslin’s breakthrough role as the wannabe beauty queen and also boosted the careers of Greg Kinnear, who played her desperate father, Steve Carrell, playing a suicidal Proust scholar, and Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood), whose character steals scenes even though he’s take a vow of silence.
Little Miss Sunshine is a film you can see multiple times and enjoy it each viewing. For me, it’s gotten dangerously close to being my comedy The Godfather that film that, if you see it while looking for something to watch, you just stop and finish it from wherever you dropped in. It is a funny film but never by sacrificing its tone of realism. Every minute of the film makes you care about the characters more and more until, finally, seeing them pull together over anything is so damn satisfying.
There are a lot of edgy choices in the film, such as Alan Arkin’s grandfather character who takes heroin, chases women, and dies on the way. But damned if you aren’t sad to see this heroin snorting curmudgeon go, and you think the world (or at least their world) is a bit poorer for it. And the characters are each so wonderfully drawn, so specific, and so damaged.
The performances in Sunshine Cleaning are fantastic, too. Here, too, Arkin plays the patriarch who connects with the youngest member of the family, a kid who needs and gets his outspoken, loud acceptance.
This is another surprising and terrific Amy Adams performance, and Emily Blunt also excels, selling the pain her character feels in a number of subtle ways throughout. Mary Lynn Rajskub is wonderful as a woman who broadens the outlook of Blunt’s Nora character to new horizons, and Steve Zahn brings something different to his role as Rose’s married boyfriend, a cop who uses his connections to get her started cleaning crime scenes.
Of course, it’s the stories and tone that separate these films. While Little Miss Sunshine decorates all its dark edges in chirpy irony, Sunshine Cleaning, a film dealing directly and indirectly with the aftermath of death, is unable to hide its macabre premise quite so easily. The film manages to be funny thanks to its offbeat performances, but unlike Little Miss, this Sunshine isn’t crack-brained wacky enough to make audiences completely forget the pain its characters are in. That doesn’t bother me in the least, but it probably explains why it never broke out of the pack like Little Miss Sunshine.
In the year it came out, I first wrote that Little Miss Sunshine was the best film I’d seen all year, period. I wrote, “You need to find out where it’s playing in your area, seek it out and go see it as soon as possible. It is genuinely funny, you care about the people, it’s a wonderful script and the actors are pitch perfect.”
Much as I enjoyed Sunshine Cleaning and its quirky humanistic spirit, I can’t make the same full-throated endorsement. You either think a film about crime scene cleaners will be okay, or you think it’ll be icky. It won’t be, but that’s another matter. It won’t ever be my comedy version of The Godfather, though. Having seen it, I can safely pass it by while looking for a film to watch.
Little Miss Sunshine is the winner. The Oscar-winning script by Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) hits all the right notes, and the directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who got their start in music videos, orchestrate the ensemble with gusto. It’s a rare feat for a small independent film to burst onto the scene and become a mainstream hit. If you haven’t taken that ride yet, I stand by my initial recommendation. See it as soon as possible.