Sunshine Cleaning (Overture Films) is a movie that the viewer is willing to forgive a lot for four very appealing reasons: Amy Adams’ perfectly round, Delft-blue eyes and Emily Blunt’s almond-shaped ones, which seem to oscillate in color between aquamarine and teal. Though they look nothing alike, Adams and Blunt are believable siblings. They share an ability to make the audience want to pick them up and cuddle them like plaintively mewing lost kittens. Hell, Sunshine Cleaning contains an actual plaintively mewing lost kitten—rescued from a fire, no less, by Blunt’s character—and you still find yourself cutting the movie a break. Under the combined force of the lead actresses’ ocular weaponry, it’s hard to remember that you’ve seen this movie before, in versions from Little Miss Sunshine to The Daytrippers (or any love-me-love-my-dysfunctional-family indie of the past 15 years).
Adams’ character, Rose Lorkowski (the very name, with its combination of poetic lyricism and white working-class ethnicity, screams “Sundance”), is a single mother barely scraping by as a housecleaner in Albuquerque, N.M., while she studies for her real estate license. Though her life is a fragile tissue of bad decisions—among them a long-term affair with her high-school boyfriend, Mac (Steve Zahn), now a married cop—Rose is the highest-functioning member of the Lorkowski family. Her younger sister, the hard-partying Norah (Blunt), has just been fired from a fast-food job and gets by baby-sitting Rose’s son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), for extra cash. Norah still lives with the Lorkowski girls’ perpetually broke father (Alan Arkin), a wheeler-dealer who sells dubiously obtained goods from the trunk of his rusty sedan.
During one of Rose and Mac’s sordid motel assignations, he encourages her to get into the business of crime-scene cleanup. Though he seems a remarkably clueless oaf, Mac proves prescient on this point. To her surprise and ours, Rose finds professional fulfillment in scrubbing blood from shower grout and dragging maggot-infested mattresses to dumpsters. Conscripting the reluctant Norah as her partner, she opens her own business, Sunshine Cleaning, and, without benefit of certification, insurance, or the least idea what she’s doing, begins to corner the local market on “biohazard removal.”
This sounds like the setup for a murder mystery: Surely the girls will find clues at a crime scene that lead them afoul of the police’s official story? But no, Sunshine Cleaning, directed by Christine Jeffs ( Rain, Sylvia) and written by the first-time screenwriter Megan Holley, is a straightforward comic drama about family, loss, and economic survival, in which acts of violence (often self-inflicted; many of the cleanup jobs are suicides) serve more as metaphors than plot points. Sometimes the going gets a little maudlin, especially in flashbacks involving the long-ago death of the Lorkowski girls’ mother. But Adams and Blunt are just as determined to make this movie work as the Lorkowskis are to better their lot in life. Their luminescence and pluck, not to mention those two hypnotizing sets of eyeballs, carry the day.
Alan Arkin virtually reprises his Oscar-winning role from Little Miss Sunshine, right down to the cranky ranting about his misfit grandchild’s underappreciated gifts. It was more charming the first time—and I say this as a viewer with a huge store of affection for Alan Arkin. 24’s Mary Lynn Rajskub surfaces in a brief, underwritten role as a phlebotomist with whom Norah pursues a semiromantic friendship. And Clifton Collins Jr., who played Perry Smith in Capote, is quietly, wildly sexy as the one-armed proprietor of a janitorial supply store who initiates a slow-burn flirtation with Rose. Casting directors, get this guy on speed dial: In the right role, he could have women shimmying out of their clothes right there in the movie theater.
Slate V: The critics on Sunshine Cleaning and other new movies