“Sunshine Cleaning” is a comedy of the “indie” persuasion, meaning it’s not laugh-out-loud funny and in fact is pervaded by life’s sadness. The story introduces us to two sisters who start their own crime scene clean-up business: the younger (Emily Blunt) is anti-authority but sweet, hiding her hurt under a tough exterior; the older (Amy Adams) is an aging single mom (30-something), scared of wasting her life, scared of spending life alone. Theirs are lives shaped by their mother’s suicide when they were children. As usual in an indie picture the main characters are damaged eccentrics, but the implication is that it’s the rest of the world who are really the screwed-up ones. What’s key to this kind of picture is the character work, and here the acting from Blunt and Adams and the writing by Megan Holley is an excellent example of the craft. Alan Arkin is good as the old dad who always has a half-thought-out, vaguely illegal moneymaking scheme, but he’s more pathetic than wacky. A less classy (but funnier) film could’ve exploited the gross comic possibilities inherent in the scenario of cleaning up crime scenes, but this one goes for poignancy. (At a domestic homicide there’s a heartbreaking cut from a plaque reading “I’ll always have a hand to hold” to a blood-spattered wall.) Director Christine Jeffs makes good use of the Albuquerque setting; she has a telling feel for space as an indicator of class. And there’s one truly great scene: Blunt’s character engages in “trestling”, which is the practice of climbing underneath a trestle so your body is inches below the tracks. As the train roars by overhead, sparks shower down and Blunt feels so alive: she’s yelling out and crying all at once, and I felt a rush of that indescribable feeling of simultaneous euphoria and heartbreak that I get when a movie hits for me.
Here’s the rare American film made in an ethic which is dear to my heart: neorealism. The director of “Goodbye Solo”, Ramin Bahrani, was recently featured in a NYT Magazine article by A.O. Scott on the “neo-neorealism”, the current crop of films by directors who are carrying on the great anti-escapist tradition that Scott identifies as running from De Sica in the late 40s through Kiarostami in the 90s to a recent film like “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”. As Scott writes of the tradition, “Their methods included the casting of nonprofessional actors, often portraying characters close to their real selves; the use of unadorned, specific locations and an absorption in the ordinary details of work, school and domesticity…their art lies not in their messages but in their discovery of a mysterious, volatile alloy of documentary and theatrical elements.” “Goodbye Solo” is about the relationship between a gregarious taxi cab driver from Senegal named Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) and the sad-eyed old man (Red West) who commissions him to be his driver. At the beginning of the film, which takes place in Winston-Salem, the old fellow strikes an agreement with Solo to drive him up into the Great Smoky mountains on a certain date; Solo divines almost immediately that he intends to commit suicide. The last section emerges from fog to a tableau of Great Smoky Park, its forest resplendent in fall colors. In a spine-shivering, vertigo-inducing scene after he has finally parted from his friend, Solo contemplates the void, climbing to the edge of a drop-off as the wind howls, gazing over the valley where fog swirls through the forest. “Goodbye Solo” has a quiet intensity (there is no score), but we have to make ourselves still to feel it.
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)
- Apr 13, 2009