Plain soap and water
Sunshine Cleaning wears its indie-film quirkiness like a plume. It’s no accident that the trailers proclaim “from the producers of Little Miss Sunshine” (having “sunshine” in the title is probably no coincidence, either). This movie aspires to the mantle of Little Miss Sunshine as the modest art-house picture that comes along to capture the hearts of audiences everywhere, the Little Movie That Could. Only it can’t.
Not that Sunshine Cleaning doesn’t come bulging with indie credentials. It stars Amy Adams (Junebug) and Emily Blunt (My Summer of Love) as sisters Rose and Norah Lorkowski. It features Alan Arkin (of Little Miss Sunshine itself, and giving pretty much the same performance) as their father, and Steve Zahn as Rose’s married lover. It’s directed by New Zealand’s Christine Jeffs and written by Megan Holley, and John Toon’s cinematography has the wan, washed-out look that has been used in low-budget films from David and Lisa to Frozen River to stand as a badge of earnest blue-collar authenticity. But the only authentic thing about Sunshine Cleaning is its pretentiousness; it’s almost like a sad-sack parody of Sundance Channel art movies.
Adams’ Rose Lorkowski is a loser, the kind of character we’re expected to root for just because she’s played by Adams. She steps out of the shower every morning to read a self-help mantra jotted on a Post-it and stuck to her bathroom mirror: “You are strong. You are invincible.” (You are woman, hear you roar.) She’s a struggling single parent in Albuquerque, N.M., working as a housecleaner to make ends meet, hoping to study her way into a real-estate license. But most of the time when she says she’s going to class, she’s really going to motel-room assignations with Mac (Zahn), a local police detective. Mac was her boyfriend back in high school when he was the star quarterback and she was head cheerleader, but he married somebody else. Is Mac the father of Rose’s melancholy son Oscar (Jason Spevack)? Holley and Jeffs don’t tell us, but there’s no mention of any other man in Rose’s life, past or present, and whoever left Rose seduced and abandoned doesn’t seem to be on the hook for child support.
Rose may be down and almost out, but she’s Oprah Winfrey compared to her younger sister Norah (Blunt). Norah can’t even walk across the fast-food joint where she works without tripping and sending a trayful of burgers, fries and Cokes flying in all directions (and getting herself fired; obviously this was just the last of many straws). When Norah baby-sits Oscar while Rose is at “class,” she tells him grisly stories that give him nightmares and move him to inappropriate behavior in school.
Some impulse to take care of Norah prompts Rose to include her as a partner in her new business venture. At Mac’s urging, Rose decides to specialize her cleaning: Instead of doing floors and windows for busy suburban housewives, she will perform the same functions for death scenes, where she can make excellent money mopping up the blood, brains and body parts left behind after the police investigation, or after some elderly loner has died unnoticed until the body began to decompose. But Norah is too much of a screw-up, and we see trouble coming even if Rose doesn’t. We see it when Norah steals an old woman’s pictures of her daughter and begins stalking the daughter (Mary Lynn Rajskub), wondering when and how to tell her that her mother is dead (but not wondering why she doesn’t already know). And when Norah lights a candle at another house without Rose to supervise her, we know no good will come of it.
Sunshine Cleaning raises but doesn’t answer questions about Rose and Norah’s new career path. How do they land these jobs in the first place? Are there any consequences when they dispose of hazardous materials in the nearest Dumpster? Rose seems to go for something called a BBP (bloodborne pathogens) certification, but does she get it? If not, what then? Writer Holley and director Jeffs are too busy striking a dewy-eyed, scruffy-puppy pose, pleading for sympathy and trading on the natural appeal of Amy Adams, Emily Blunt and Alan Arkin to bother filling in the potholes in their story.