“Sunshine Cleaning” is a motion picture that succeeds entirely because of the prodigious acting labor from stars Amy Adams and Emily Blunt. Without their efforts to force-feed some deep-seated emotional shading into the film, the picture would be a decidedly hollow indie event, defined by a quirky premise and one-dimensional characterization. Because Adams and Blunt bring their best to the roles, the feature carefully avoids the pitfalls of convention, becoming a familiar story executed with unexpected gravitas.
As a haggard single mother, Rose (Amy Adams) is struggling to juggle low-paying jobs to make ends meet for her peculiar son. Thinking of private school for the high-maintenance boy, Rose looks to the crime scene clean-up business for monetary salvation, roping her deadbeat sister Norah (Emily Blunt) into the gruesome gig to help drive around town, tidying up after murders and suicides. Dealing with a noncommittal lover (Steve Zahn), her get-rich-quick scheming father (Alan Arkin), and her own issues concerning past high school glory days, Rose gets lost in this new world, finding the responsibility and rewards thrilling, but also feeling the reality of the work reopening deep emotional wounds.
A graduate of the Sundance Film Festival Class of 2008, “Sunshine Cleaning” certainly fits in conceptually with the general quirk of the indie film movement. Featuring a cutesy/edgy plot teeming with damaged characters wallowing in New Mexico malaise, it’s something of a miracle to find the film approachable at all. Director Christine Jeffs (her first effort since 2003’s “Sylvia”) turns the low-budget charms on early with her static staging and permissive attitude with silences, yet she manages to harness a forward momentum to the story that helps to digest a pungent Wes Anderson/”Little Miss Sunshine” stench that wafts up from time to time.
Thankfully, the screenplay by Megan Holley doesn’t dwell on the blackened whimsy of the biohazard blues, only indulging in a little lighthearted gore to help sell the often soul-opening reality of the situation. Instead, Holley and Jeffs are more fascinated with the family dynamic at play here, and how Rose accepts her own life of perceived failure. A subplot with Norah pursuing the daughter (Mary Lynn Rajskub) of a deceased “client” leads to an odd tangent of blossoming lesbianism and shotgunned maturity, teetering on the edge of hokiness. However, the moments are infused with a tender primal hurt from Blunt, who loses the war in executing a believable American accent, but brings the character to surprising life with what little screentime she has.
The focal point of the picture is Rose and her crushing self-doubt. The portrayal from Adams is an extraordinary ride of nuanced expression and emotional study, specifying with unnerving precision the lines of humiliation and philosophical awakening that keeps the character in a sort of limbo between paralyzing fear and newfound peace. The script gives Rose plenty to chew on, especially with her fight to maintain a connection to her high school triumphs, carrying on an affair with an old, now married boyfriend that only leads to further disgrace and confusion. Adams plays the rainbow of reactions exceptionally, finding depth and grit to a complicated character many actresses wouldn’t know what to do with outside of a pout and a hair flip.
If I had any real complaint about “Sunshine Cleaning” it would be its brevity. Obviously nipped and tucked since its debut over a year ago, the film cuts too many corners as it goes along, choosing speed over clarity, leaving many of the supporting characters hanging carelessly by the end credits. The impact of the liberal editing isn’t really felt until true post-movie reflection kicks in, and that delay is a blessing. Even with some uncomfortable divots, “Sunshine Cleaning” holds enough charm to sustain an impressive hold on the senses, while remaining a pleasing addition to the blossoming abilities of Amy Adams.