I hate to be pessimistic about the American Indie, a failing breed that probably deserves a protected enclosure somewhere near Park City. But I’m afraid Sunshine Cleaning is emblematic of the current form. It flirts with a heightened realism — read: depressed characters — that proves disingenuous, as the movie breaks right for the Hollywood ending at first opportunity.
Amy Adams is Rose, 30-ish and stalled in a nothing job as a cleaning lady. Romance and family stability are elusive. She’s fucking her married high school boyfriend Mac (Steve Zahn), and her smart son (Jason Spevack) is bored and causing trouble in school. Norah (Emily Blunt), her younger sister, depressed and unable to hold a job, is terminally stuck in the shadow of their late mother’s image. Their father (Alan Arkin) is a relative model of stability, but still engages in silly business deals to stay busy.
Mac, evolved from high school football hero to cop, suggests to Rose a career lateral: go into crime scene cleaning. There’s money waiting to be made, he says. Bored, worn, hungry to be thought of as capable, Rose bites. With Norah as half-willing partner, she jumps into the work without considering the job’s basic legal and practical realities. How, for example, does one properly dispose of a blood-soaked mattress?
Predictably, their efforts are cute and gung-ho until it all goes wrong.
The coup here is casting: Amy Adams is perceptive and gently invigorating. It’s impossible not to perk up a little when she’s on screen, which makes her the obvious choice for a woman who, as Rose admits, has no trouble getting guys to want her, but can’t keep them around. What Adams does so well is modulate that basic character with shards of desperation and an energy level that wisely goes for ‘frayed’ instead of ‘frantic’.
Emily Blunt has a different appeal; she’s slightly odd, vaguely exotic, and plays Rose’s kooky, infantile younger sister with just the right degree of weird. Norah is almost a faux-real Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which would be a horror. Blunt instead draws her as deeply but not irrevocably damaged; someone you’d be wary of, if vaguely attracted to.
Filling in the gaps are the reliable Arkin as Enduring Dad and the perpetually invisible Clifton Collins, Jr. as Winston, the cleaning services shop owner who takes a shine to Rose.
Megan Holley’s script foists actions upon the actors that often feel like the product of board meetings. “Can you make this guy more appealing?” “Can she have some cute telltale reminder of her pain?” So Collins isn’t just a knowledgeable, personable retailer. He’s a master model maker whose miniature achievements prove that losing an arm didn’t break his spirit. Norah keeps a tin of her mother’s old cigarette butts, smoking them occasionally to get closer to her. And there’s a CB radio that more than one character uses as a radio to heaven.
The best beats are a pair of half-fulfilled relationships. Winston is quietly but unmistakably interested in Rose, and his attention is one of the few things the film is willing to play at reduced volume.
Norah also has a near-romance, from a more unlikely source. After finding a set of photographs in a dead woman’s home, Norah tracks the subject (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and accidentally befriends her. The trajectory of their relationship is wobbly and short, but ends up being one of the most honest things in a story that can’t figure out how to balance wanting everyone to feel real, and feel good at the same time.