Director Catherine Jeffs lucked out when she scored Amy Adams and Emily Blunt to co-star in her mildly pleasing dramedy Sunshine Cleaning. As sisters struggling to overcome their mother’s suicide, the actors’ appeal and chemistry provide Jeffs’s film its essential spark. Once the high school popularity queen, Rose (Adams) slogs along as a cleaning lady, and carries on an affair with her now-married high school boyfriend (Steve Zahn), meanwhile losing her grip on her sweet but emotionally neglected son, Oscar (Jason Spevack). Her younger sister, Norah (Blunt), is no better off: Directionless, she can’t hold down a job, and lives at home with their father, Joe (Alan Arkin). The ghost of their dead mother haunts Rose and Norah, weighing them down with guilt, anger, and wreaking havoc on their self-esteems.
When Rose and Norah hear about the lucrative career of crime-scene cleanup (i.e. scrubbing up blood and other bodily debris from the scene of violent crimes), they decide that’s their ticket, and cobble together the film’s ad hoc titular business. There’s plenty of potential humor here to be tapped into, but Jeffs and writer Megan Holley steer toward indie earnestness instead. Sunshine Cleaning thus becomes a drawn-out metaphor to physicalize the sisters’ attempts to scrub clean the memories of their mother. One of their cleanup “jobs”—a woman who committed suicide (like Mom, get it?) prompts Norah to track down the woman’s daughter, Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), hoping to offer the closure that she herself lacks. Except Norah’s pursuit of the young woman gets mistaken for romantic overtures with predictably testy results; it’s one of Holley’s many tepid choices. Another is interpolating a story thread concerning Rose’s bid to prove to her old high school crowd that she’s amounted to something, which feels like an ill-placed distraction in light of Sunshine‘s bigger and more pertinent themes.
Better handled are the relationships between Rose and Norah and among this intimate group of characters. Jeffs’s tendency to let her scenes linger allows the performers to breathe nuance into their roles. Refreshingly, Rose and Norah’s relationship is less about bitchy sibling rivalries and more about two wounded humans aching to put their grief behind them. An undercurrent of compassion is always present in Adams and Blunt’s scenes together, and, likewise, their scenes with Arkin and the young Spevack. Added to the mix is Winston—a one-armed salesman (as blunt a metaphor as you’ll find in a film about loss) and Rose’s budding love interest—warmly played by Clifton Collins Jr. For his part, Arkin—as good an actor as he is—merely recycles his eccentric family elder shtick from Little Miss Sunshine, nothing more.
While that film had visual wit and color, one is hard pressed to find any cinematic personality to Sunshine Cleaning. Were it not for its winning performances, there would be nothing by which to remember it afterward, so flat and uninspired is its craftsmanship. It’s as if death, so pervasive a theme in Jeffs’s film, has seeped from the story into its telling, and, indeed, one wishes for more verve, more vitality—more life in the film’s presentation.