Rating: 3 stars
Sunshine Cleaning—about a couple of down-on-their-luck sisters (Amy Adams and Emily Blunt) who start a crime scene clean-up business—suffers from a bit of whimsy overload. It’s one of those self-consciously quirky indie films—one sister communicates with God through a CB radio; their father (Alan Arkin) engages a series of improbable get-rich-quick schemes—that tend to do well at local art houses. Little Miss Sunshine, which Sunshine Cleaning rather slavishly takes cues from (I mean, could they be more obvious?) would be the gold standard.
Rose Lorkowski (Adams) is a former cheerleader and high school overachiever whose life got derailed by the birth of her son. She now has a dead-end job (cleaning houses), a deadbeat married boyfriend (Steve Zahn), and only the fading memories of her high school glory years. Her sister Norah (Blunt) is listless and jaded, an angry girl who drifts through life in a fog of disaffection. It’s Rose who decides to start the crime scene cleanup business—she needs money to pay for her son’s private school tuition—and Norah who grudgingly comes along for the ride.
The film watches as the sisters submit to their disgusting new job with increasing stoicism and skill. (At first they are repulsed; eventually it becomes just a job.) Along the way, they befriend a one-armed man (Clifton Collins Jr.) who runs an industrial cleaning supply company; a lonely woman (Mary Lynn Rajskub) whose mother has died in a house of unspeakable squalor; and—in one of the film’s most touching moments—an old woman who lets Rose sit with her wordlessly as she waits for her husband’s body to be removed from her home.
Both Adams are Blunt are great—they are two of the most exciting young actresses working today. Adams's Rose has a sunny proficiency that only occasionally betrays her real yearnings; Blunt's Norah hides her pain behind a mask of ennui. And what saves the film from preciousness is its droll humor and the gentle observations it makes about those unlikely relationships forged amid the rubble.