The tenderhearted Sunshine Cleaning begins with a woman named Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) reading a list of affirmations from Post-it notes. "You are strong," she tells her reflection. "You are powerful." The audience promptly takes it under advisement that Rose is neither strong nor powerful, and she proves it a few minutes later by romping around a hotel room with her lover (Steve Zahn), a man who is obviously married and planning on staying that way.
The affirmation-hungry Hallmark set often takes a beating at the art house. But Sunshine Cleaning, directed by Christine Jeffs, doesn't mock Rose, a former popularity queen and high school cheerleader turned single mom supporting herself as a cleaning lady. It shares her secrets, reveals her weaknesses and then steps back and allows her to look for that strength and power.
Because she's desperate for money (her challenging son Oscar, played by Jason Spevack, needs to go to private school), Rose gets into the more lucrative end of the cleaning business: tidying up suicides and sponging up blood and guts at crime scenes, a plot apparently inspired by an NPR story. She takes as her partner her sister Norah (Emily Blunt), a young woman who has so consistently screwed up that she's practically paralyzed.
The self-conscious quirkiness of a career cleaning up corpses could present a trap, but Jeffs (best known for the Plath biopic Sylvia) does her best to steer around it. Rose and Norah have one nose-holding, cringing, slapstick-filled scene in a dead woman's house, but a sense of respect for the departed pervades the movie. "Do you think they loved each other?" Norah asks, surveying the bathroom where a murder-suicide took place. "Yes," Rose says with certainty. The more we learn about Rose and Norah's childhood their mother died in what Norah dryly terms a "do-it-yourself kind of thing" the more we can make sense of Rose's mistakes and Norah's ineptness. The film is most compassionate and engaging in its assessment of the fallout from suicide on surviving family members, in this case 20 years after the fact.
Sunshine Cleaning has lapses of logic (mostly pertaining to Oscar's schooling issues) and a few scenes that don't run as smoothly as they should, but it is filled with fine performances, including some nice supporting work by Zahn, who gets a rare chance to be sexy as that weak-willed adulterer. Clifton Collins Jr. makes an appealingly laconic one-armed shopkeeper and 24's Mary Lynn Rajskub earns every second of her screen time playing the estranged daughter of one of Rose and Norah's "clients."
Adams and Blunt are very believable sisters, not just because of their similar statures and wide blue eyes, but also because of the rhythm of their give and take, often hurtful, always knowing. Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada) makes Norah's very inaction riveting, while Adams has the unusual gift of being able to convey sweet conviction without ever straying into cloying territory. She'd be an ideal companion to share a life raft with. (Who else could have made Enchanted so enchanting?) It will be interesting to see Adams someday put aside some of that sunshine for a darker role.
Speaking of, even if it didn't share a title word, Sunshine Cleaning would likely be compared to Little Miss Sunshine, which came from the same production company. There's the dark humor, the pathos, the suicide theme, the misfit child everyone adores and last but not least, Alan Arkin, who plays Rose and Norah's father Joe. Take away Little Miss's grandpa's deep interest in pornography, and they are essentially the same characters. Arkin's needling charms are intact, but it's a poor casting choice. When you hear him giving the same self-esteem speech to Oscar that he gave to Abigail Breslin's Olive, it's hard not to feel you've been sold secondhand merchandise. That's a pity, because Sunshine Cleaning deserves to stand on its own two feet.