This is a world of great things, big and small. This is a world of uninspired dreck, in places high and low. This is a world that also happens to have a huge middle ground, and that’s where Sunshine Cleaning has dug its plot, pun intended. I don't see myself remembering it as anything other than a resume check for its stars, all of whom are impressive in their roles. Sunshine Cleaning’s basic plot is interesting enough to draw in casual viewers, but it sells its own story short in that respect. I expected Sunshine Cleaning to be an indie charmer where Amy Adams and Emily Blunt would buddy up in their conquests and breezily sashay through a functional plot. This isn't so. It dips its toes into emotional territory, but isn't overflowing with humor. It isn't dark, but it isn't cheery. It isn't that deep, but it isn't written by monkeys. Do you see where I'm going here? Let's put on our respirators and Kevlar gloves and step gingerly into Sunshine Cleaning.
Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) is a house cleaner en route to getting a real-estate license. I'll go ahead and tell you now that she never gets a real-estate license, and I wondered throughout why she wasn't ever actually doing it. Amy Adams is a fine actress, always giving natural performances with none of the melodramatic flair that plague some female thespians. (Sandra Bullock, I'm looking at you.) Rose used to be Miss Popular in high school and is self-conscious about her station in life, which involves a hotel romance with a married cop played by an affable Steve Zahn. Rose has an impressionable son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), whose odd behavior gets him into trouble at school. Rose's younger sister, Norah (Emily Blunt), has little to show for herself except better self-esteem than Rose. Alan Arkin is solid without doing much as their nebbish father, Joe, always on the hunt for quick money.
Zahn's Mac tells Rose there is money to be made cleaning and sanitizing rooms where people have died, some of them crime scenes. Initially balking, Rose takes Norah with her and tries it out, eventually learning the tricks of the trade and giving the business the movie's titular name. The movie handles its themes of death with the same kind of gloves that the sisters use to scrub the bloodstains from the walls. In a way it's refreshing; the tone isn't as light as I expected, but neither does it go too far in the opposite direction. The overall scope remains centered around its characters and their reactions. Characters don't go from point A to point B just because the plot dictates it. There are incidental moments and details throughout that are unheralded by exposition, and these are the most genuine moments in the film, because they're naturally tossed off. Conversely, the only contrived scenes deal with a CB radio in the vehicle Rose purchases as a company van. When Oscar asks how the radio works, Paul Dooley's car salesman explains the radio waves go all the way to heaven and back. The actors' performances are the only things raising these scenes beyond spoonfed spirituality.
At one point Rose gets an invite to the baby shower of a more-successful old school-mate, along with many women from her past. The humiliation of the baby shower, combined with the stresses of the job and worrying about getting Oscar into a private school, all begin to break Rose down mentally. Adams really brings it in those moments when all feels lost. Just the glistening in the corner of her eyes and I instantly feel sympathetic. She finds some solace in conversations with a one-armed Clifton Collins, Jr. as Winston, who runs a supply store and also makes amazing model airplanes. He has a bit of a crush on Rose, who is oblivious. I like Collins in many things, and this role was child's play for him.
When all is said and done, there are many aspects that put Sunshine Cleaning in the realm of a Lifetime movie of the week, though the writing and performances definitely surpass that. Rose and Mac's affair isn't shown as overly sleazy; Mac is allowed to care for Rose without looking like a monster, and the romance fizzles without much fanfare. Norah comes close at times to drifting into emo territory, but she always pulls it back with a small smile or pissy comment. Oscar feels like a loose end, as I could never tell where he anchored Rose down except in her need to pay for his education. But all of the deaths and the small amount of gore are remarkably low-key, and play more towards the charity being done by the sisters, rather than the heartbreaking loss of the event inspiring it. There is an underlying sense of hope just beneath the surface, raising the movie above so many other independent films obsessed with wading in murky emotions.
The disc is pretty sparse with its features, thus relegating it to renting or cable viewing as safer bets. That said, the features themselves are top notch. The commentary track definitely widened my appreciation for the movie. Screenwriter Megan Holley and producer Glenn Williamson are energetic and informative, detailing many of the changes from script to screen, including deleted scenes and plot points that deepened character backgrounds and stories. Many of the changes they speak of, issues of pacing and tone, are related to the problems I have with the movies inattention to closure, so it was reassuring to hear that the original concept was fully realized in the writer's mind. If only it were a screenwriter's world, I would be a spoiled human being. Sadly, it isn't, and just as sad is the fact that none of these deleted moments made it onto the disc. Also referred to but vacant is an extended, improvised scene between Alan Arkin and Paul Dooley. It's a crime to let that go unseen.
Aside from the commentary, there is a wonderful featurette focusing on the two women (best friends, not sisters) who inspired Sunshine Cleaning. In "A Fresh Look at Dirty Business," the women tell their story and relate it to the film, pointing out moments that ranged from professionally inconsistent to shamefully relatable. It's a really original feature, but none of the cast or crew is involved. We get nothing from the stars or director Christine Jeffs. (I haven't mentioned Jeffs at all because the movie looks like it filmed itself.) All that's left are a few other Anchor Bay film trailers, and a theatrical trailer for this one. I feel like I've cheapened the movie with my all-around lack of a recommendation. Don't avoid it thinking it's badly made, but don't seek it out hoping for the bee's knees.