There are so many superficial similarities between Sunshine Cleaning and that fellow Sundance success, Little Miss Sunshine, that the new movie was probably doomed from the start. It's all too easy for snide critics to point out the cute kid, charming old grandpa played by Alan Arkin, desert setting and quirky family drama, and deduce that Sunshine Cleaning is just another mishmash of indie tropes trying to cash in on the success of that movie with the big yellow van.
While it's true that Sunshine Cleaning indulges in a little too much quirk, and is not as good as Little Miss Sunshine, the new movie starring Amy Adams and Emily Blunt has a lot to recommend it, starting with the honest performances from its two leads. As two very different sisters scrabbling out a living in dusty Albuquerque, Blunt and Adams build a believable rapport between them, and each digs deep in their characters to give the audience a view into their difficult, lonely lives.
Adams is Rose, a single mom raising an oddball son (Jason Spevack) by working for a cleaning service, and keeping her social life on hold while she engages in an affair with her married high school boyfriend (Steve Zahn). He's the one who gives her the idea to go into crime scene cleanup, and motivated by the chance to re-imagine herself as an entrepreneur, she talks her slacker sister Norah (Blunt) into joining the business.
Norah and Rose are incredibly inept at first, and the movie indulges a little in some blood-and-guts sight gags before taking the sisters in some unexpected directions thanks to the new job. Rose turns out to be really good at the business, and imbued with some of the can-do spirit from her entrepreneurial dad (Alan Arkin), she uses the business as means to get the rest of her life in order. She ditches the ex, works up the guts to attend a baby shower held by a ritzy former classmate, and starts a very tentative, warm flirtation with the guy who sells their heavy-duty cleaning supplies (Clifton Collins Jr.). Norah, on the other hand, is much more emotionally affected by the crime scenes they clean, and finds herself in a semi-romantic friendship with the daughter (Mary Lynn Rajskub) of a suicide victim.
Megan Holley's screenplay slips into stilted language and awkward coincidence sometimes, especially in the subplot that finds Rose and Norah recovering from their mother's suicide when they were children. Where other parts of the movie capture so much realism, from dingy parties to the tyranny of school principals, it's a ridiculous notion that two sisters struggling to get over a death that happened 25 years earlier would go into crime scene cleanup. As a result some of the key moments of the film, in which Rose and Norah are supposed to have found inner peace and new realizations about themselves, ring hollow and cliched.
But director Christine Jeffs is great with her actors, and takes a light, witty approach to the material that largely steers the movie away from the maudlin. Every time one of the characters does something unbelievable, like talking to her dead mom through a CB radio, Jeffs inserts a clever camera angle or well-timed edit to pull the mood back from the brink. Sunshine Cleaning avoids a tidy ending, and despite being cute redheads, Rose and Norah emerge as genuinely complicated, not always likable characters. Beyond the over-reliance on easy quirks, there's an intent toward real storytelling at the heart of Sunshine Cleaning that sets it above typical indie schmaltz.