Comparisons between Sunshine Cleaning and Little Miss Sunshine are unavoidable. Both were produced by Big Beach Films’s Marc Turtletaub and Peter Saraf. Both offer a precocious child, a gloomy sibling bottled up with rage and sadness, a resolutely cheerful mother, and Alan Arkin as a cranky crank of a grandfather. And, of course, both have the word “sunshine” in the title.
But that’s where the similarities end. Sunshine Cleaning, directed by Sylvia‘s Christine Jeffs and written by Megan Holley, is billed as a dark comedy, but except for the occasional pratfall by Emily Blunt’s Norah, Sunshine is more about the gallows than the humor.
Which isn’t to say it’s not enjoyable. It is a tender, well-written movie about people struggling to stay afloat in the face of daily indignities and, in the process, finding a deeper connection to each other and themselves.
Emily Blunt and Amy Adams play sisters who are two sides of the loser coin. Adams’s Rose Lorkowski was once the head cheerleader with the football captain on her arm. Years later, she’s a cleaning lady and single mom who meets her high school ex in a shady hotel for emotionally unsatisfying trysts. The only times Rose doesn’t have to force a smile—and she’s always smiling—is during these nights with Mac (Steve Zahn), but even then she’s forced to swallow her concerns and her desires for something more in order to keep seeing him.
On the flip side is her sister Norah—played with a delicious sullenness by Emily Blunt—who knows she’s not a winner; in fact, she tries hard not to be. She lives with their father. Late for her job as a waitress, she trips and spills a tray full of food, and is fired. Norah fights Rose when Rose tries to pay her for babysitting but reluctantly ends up taking the ten dollars.
And then there’s Dad. He promises Oliver things he can’t deliver. He tries to hustle local business owners and fails. He raised two daughters by himself, but he can barely keep himself together.
When Mac offhandedly mentions to Rose how much money there is to be made in the crime-scene cleanup business, she jumps on the idea with the same sunny smile and can-do attitude she once waved her pom-poms with. She recruits Norah, gets advice and supplies from a one-armed shop owner named Winston (played with a gentle lop-sided smile by Clifton Collins Jr.), buys a van, and has business cards made.
Some of the snags they hit are humorous, but those are, for the most part, in the trailer—Norah puking and Rose telling her, “Great, now we’re gonna have to clean that up too!” or Norah falling face-first onto a bloody mattress they’re illegally depositing into a dumpster. Unfortunately, the trailer is cut so that some of the scenes either give too much of the character arc away—like Rose’s epiphany or Norah during her train adventure—or play more humorous than they really are in the movie.
The sunny cheerleader is the more pitiful and awkward of the two sisters; Norah is at least comfortable in her own failure. Just below the surface of Rose’s untiring devotion to optimism and protecting those around her—which even extends to their business—is a desperation that’s painful to watch. Despite Rose’s rah-rah grins, her eyes are often lined with red from withheld tears, and her bird bones are covered by too-pale skin. She looks breakable.
Norah is vulnerable in a different way; she tries to protect herself, but you can see the pain in her eyes too when her “boyfriend” is fooling around with other girls at a party, or later when she realizes she’s made a horrible mistake. Her scenes can be explosive, as when she dangles from a train trestle, but she’s never quite as unpredictable as one would hope. Which is actually the overall problem with the movie—though enjoyable, it’s never as unpredictable as I’d hoped.
While Blunt and Adams inhabit their characters’ skins, Alan Arkin seems to be treading water with his grumpy old man act. Oliver, played by Jason Spevack, is from the overly smart and therefore adorably kooky school of child characters. The script is weak in parts, with pronounced truisms and obvious symbols, but watching it all come together in the end was moving. The strong performances of Blunt and Adams redeem the shortcomings of Sunshine Cleaning, giving the viewer what is, in the end, a sad and beautiful treatise on intimacy.