Sunshine Cleaning is based on an interesting idea, but one that's not very original, having been explored in films like Curdled (1996) and Cleaner (2007), and played an amusing part in Pulp Fiction. The film centers on those who clean up crime scenes. When a violent crime takes place, someone has to come in and clean the mess and private companies step in to fill the need. They come in at time of often unexpected loss and tragedy, they come in and clean up the blood and other fluids making the space usable again, helping wipe away the memory of the tragedy and move forward. Well, it may not always be quite so dramatic — it can also be a good way to make some money and deal with your own past, if you can stomach the blood and brain matter.
The film comes from the producers of Little Miss Sunshine (I wonder how many films they can produce with "sunshine" in the title? Too bad they weren't involved with Danny Boyle's Sunshine), and seems to be cut from the same cloth. Both films are steeped in the independent spirit, working with a small budget and focusing on character above all else. They even have a similar look and color palette. Beyond that, both movies feature Alan Arkin as a slightly eccentric family patriarch. These two movies are also both successful at achieving their goals and give you a reason to become invested in them.
Amy Adams stars as Rose, a single mother struggling to make ends meet working for a maid service. She is also is having an affair with Mac (Steve Zahn), a local police detective who is the father of her son, Oscar. Rose has a hard-living sister, Norah (Emily Blunt), who lives with their father, Joe (Alan Arkin), who is always coming up with some get rich quick scheme.
Troubles begin for Rose as Oscar gets kicked out of school for being disruptive. Rose sees as him just being a young boy. This brings up the idea of sending him to private school, but that will cost money she does not have. Then the idea of crime scene clean-up is mentioned as a way to make some good money.
Rose opens up Sunshine Cleaning with Norah at her side and they head out to pick up after the police are long gone. They learn early on that it is not an easy job, but it is one that needs to be done and the sisters go about it the best they can.
Sunshine Cleaning is very much a slice-of-life type of film. It tells a story, but it is not so much about plot as it is about the characters and this stage of their lives. In this regard, the film never really "takes off" nor does it end. We follow them through a mutual transitory stage and as they hit the next stage of their lives we take our leave as they continue moving forward.
The film's approach is rather low-key. It has a blend of humor and drama that never goes too far over the top and feels genuine, despite some plot contrivances. I mean, it does seem like there are a lot of messy murders, deaths, and suicides in what appears to be a small town.
What helps bring the story its poignancy is the relationship the sisters have with each other and the memories of their deceased mother, who died when the girls were young. They never were able to get over losing her, and this job, cleaning up after the dead and interacting with those suffering loss, is forcing them to confront the feelings in a way they never did as children. This points to Rose's self-confidence issues and her desire to be a mother. For Norah it is simply finding herself, getting through her rebellious nature.
The story may have been a little too far to the low-key side if not for the lead performances. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt turn in fine performances that are quietly charismatic. I was drawn into their lives, I wanted to know more. It was the fine performances of the leads more than the script that kept me deeply invested.