A word in the title is hardly the only thing Sunshine Cleaning, the new dramedy with Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, has in common with Little Miss Sunshine. They're both shot in New Mexico. They're both about dysfunctional families in awkward circumstances trying to hold it together. They both have Mary Lynn Rajskub in supporting roles, and they both star Alan Arkin, who plays roughly the same guy in each. While their writers and directors are different, the two films share a couple of producers, and, perhaps most of all, they have a similar vibe and, despite initial appearances, seem likely to end happily. This is one case where it's pretty easy to say, hey, if you liked Little Miss Sunshine, you'll probably like Sunshine Cleaning.
And that's not a bad thing. Little Miss Sunshine was somewhat contrived—each family member coincidentally confronted with ridiculous baggage in the course of one overnight trip—but it was genial and sweet. Sunshine Cleaning offers the same emotional payoff, albeit with considerably more blood and guts.
No, Sunshine Cleaning isn't violent. In fact, like in Little Miss, even the emotional violence is barely PG-13. Christine Jeffs' film focuses on what happens after the violence, after the bodies have been cleared away, when the blood has congealed and someone needs to tidy up. That someone is Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams), who has cleaned people's homes for years, a humiliating but necessary job she's taken as a single mother. But when she finds herself in need of some quick money, her boyfriend, married cop Steve Zahn, suggests she start cleaning up crime scenes. The work is nasty, but the money's good, so she enlists her slacker sister Norah (Emily Blunt), and they go to work, knee-deep in the aftermath of death and destruction.
Most clean-up crews go in and do the job. Rose and Norah, though often at odds with each other, are newbies and sensitive types, and they find themselves getting perhaps too involved with the people whose messes they're cleaning up. Rose sits with an older woman whose husband has committed suicide—it sounds contrived, but it works. And Norah tries to do the right thing by tracking down the daughter of a dead woman whose effects she's gotten her hands on.
This is the sort of film that has lots of special moments, and while it employs clichés we've seen many times before, they work well here. Much of this is thanks to Adams, who has proven herself as a supporting character actor, earning a pair of Oscar nominations, and whose previous turn as a lead was in Enchanted, a better-than-expected parody of Disney musicals. She does a solid job leading an ensemble, and she's ably assisted by Blunt, who has, so far, converted her leading-lady looks into terribly appealing supporting roles.
Arkin does a redux of his Little Miss role, minus the heroin habit, and another bright spot is Clifton Collins Jr., who plays Winston, a one-armed man who runs the cleaning store where the sisters buy their supplies. He's one of those actors who's offered something different in every role he's played, whether that's in Capote, Traffic or Tigerland. Here, he's quiet and unassuming, an unlikely candidate for Rose, with whom we'd like to see him end up.
Of course, a movie that deals with family issues and veers this close to sentimentality will eventually cross the line, and Sunshine Cleaning does that from time to time. But generally that just goes to show how well the filmmakers do in avoiding scenes that are overly saccharine. No, it's not perfect, but it it's good, and, like with family, sometimes good is good enough.