The indie comedy Sunshine Cleaning opens with a suicide in a sporting goods store. Director Christine Jeffs cuts from the shotgun-related money shot, but shows the "CSI"-style aftermath, with blood on the acoustic ceiling tiles and drops seemingly touching the store's every corner. A bystander remarks, "Hey, Carl, he's over here in Fishing, too."
Sunshine Cleaning explores the hygienic challenges of crime scenes but, surprisingly, shows conspicuous amounts of restraint. The film's story involves two mismatched sisters who seek their fortune in the unlikely venture of crime scene clean-up, and it's all too easy to imagine Hollywood's take on the material. I see Meg Ryan and maybe one of the "Grey's Anatomy" chicks bickering with each other, engaging in slapstick with human remains and probably solving a whodunit before everyone falls in love.
Sunshine Cleaning features at least one icky pratfall, and its share of bickering and reconciliations, but also commits to a pleasantly loose plot and doesn't worry about resolving every detail. It debuted at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and hews a little close to the funny-sad formula of indie dramedies like Garden State and Little Miss Sunshine. Still, there are worse formulas it could follow as it shows the messiness of violent death as well as everyday life.
Amy Adams cements her status as America's newest screen sweetheart as Rose Lorkowski. Rose is the kind of open-hearted former cheerleader who worries that she peaked in high school and recites daily affirmations from Post-It notes. A single mom to a tousle-headed boy (Jason Spevack) with disciplinary problems, she knows her job with the Pretty Clean housemaid service won't pay to place her son in a private school. Her father, Joe (Little Miss Sunshine Oscar-winner Alan Arkin), offers supportive talk, but experience has taught her that his get-rich hustles, such as selling shrimp to Albuquerque restaurants, are doomed to fail.
Rose's married boyfriend, Mac (Steve Zahn), a detective, points out that crime scene cleaners make a killing, so Rose takes a morbid career turn and brings her gloomy, gothy sister Norah (Emily Blunt) along as a partner. Soon they struggle with nauseating smells and Jackson Pollock splatters on bathroom walls. Megan Holley's script smoothly points out the behind-the-crime-scene details of such procedures and sends Rose to a Bloodborne Pathogen Certification seminar. Norah finds herself moved by the deaths of their clients and becomes friends with one of the deceased's grown daughters ("24's" Mary Lynn Rajskub), who works in a blood bank.
Sunshine Cleaning proves more interested in the roles than the characters' work. Their fraught relationships would have similarly fraught dynamics no matter what they did for a living. The sisters fall into petty sibling rivalry: "Me screwing up gives you the hugest woody," Norah accuses Rose in an early scene. In the film's later section, the characters grapple with their mother's death, leading to fairly shameless girlhood flashbacks and an embarrassing contrivance with a C.B. radio, which the boy believes is a channel to heaven.
Adams' performance holds the film together as she traces Rose's personal growth from depressed klutz to an increasingly confident professional who can swap jargon with police officers. She finds her high school friends increasingly frivolous as they chatter over diapers and chocolate at a baby shower. Sunshine Cleaning also captures Rose's sexuality, and her face exudes vivacious abandon when she gets her neck kissed, as if a grubby hotel room has transformed into a place of youthful excitement.
Sunshine Cleaning gives a similar neck-kiss to Blunt, another character with intriguing, if ambiguous, parallels. Like a gangly Janeane Garofalo, Blunt offers an amusingly sardonic counterpoint to Rose's energetic get-up-and-go. By the end, Norah's gone a bit too soft. With so many tearful epiphanies, it's as if Blunt's agent edited the film to position her for roles in romantic tear-jerkers. Sunshine Cleaning suggests that Blunt, like Adams, has the acting chops to justify her entry in the A-list for starlets. One can only hope they'll both strike a balance between Hollywood glitz and indie quirks in their future films. It's nice work if they can get it.