The same thought kept going through my head while I watched Sunshine Cleaning: “This film is so Sundance!” I wasn’t surprised then to learn that it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at that very film festival (though not this year's, but 2008's). What makes it an almost stereotypical indie film is its earthy, realistic setting, its quirky characters and its small-scale human drama. None of that’s a bad thing, unless you’re looking for the next Little Miss Sunshine.
Filmed in a very realistically portrayed Albuquerque, Sunshine Cleaning tells the story of Rose and Norah Lorkowski, two sisters on opposite ends of the spectrum. Rose (the always-radiant Amy Adams) was the head cheerleader in high school, who is now a single mother working for a mobile maid service. She’s having an affair with her high school sweetheart (Steve Zahn) who married someone else. Through it all, however, she’s determined to do something big with her life. Norah (the always razor-sharp Emily Blunt), on the other hand, is a slacker waitress who lives with their dad (the always wonderful Alan Arkin) and was just fired from her job.
Desperate to send her son to a good school, Rose decides to team up with Norah in a cleaning business devoted to crime scenes and other post-death biohazards. It’s a lucrative but disgusting line of work, yet Rose finds a deeper satisfaction in it. She is happy to be going into such desperate situations and making things better for the bereaved survivors. Meanwhile, Norah is reluctantly happy to be succeeding for once. Both women were scarred as girls when they found their mother after she had committed suicide, but it takes Sunshine Cleaning to help them face the trauma. Rose finds strength in Winston (Clifton Collins Jr. from Capote), who runs the janitorial supply store where they shop.
The film is a nice character study filled with wonderful actors. Director Christine Jeffs errs in making the baby shower where Rose reaches an epiphany too much of a cartoon, but other scenes like the one where Rose consoles an elderly woman while Norah begins to clean up her husband’s suicide scene are utterly moving. The current economy paired with the arid and life-draining Albuquerque setting make the film a little depressing to watch, but its well-earned hopeful ending makes up for it. Sunshine Cleaning may not be a movie you seek out, but afterward you’ll be glad for the experience, even if its generic Sundance feel makes it vanish from your memory like a well-cleaned murder scene.
UPDATE: Sunshine Cleaning is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.