As I walk from the theatre having seen Sunshine Cleaning, I am reminded of the song At Seventeen. In it, the precocious Janis Ian lamented that love was meant for beauty queens and high school girls with clean-skin smiles, not for ugly ducklings like her. Rose Lorkowski, Amy Adam’s character in Sunshine Cleaning, was one of those golden high school Prom queens. Fifteen years later, she’s still meeting her high-school boyfriend (Steve Zahn) for seedy motel romps even though he’s now married to someone else, and as a single mother with bills to pay, Rose finds that the only two things she is actually good at – cheer-leading and getting guys to find her attractive (not date her or marry her, just find her attractive) – doesn’t put food on the table. Instead, she finds herself cleaning the homes of the girls who had envied her high-school life, the Janis Ians of the world, now SUV-driving soccer mums absolutely bursting with smug schadenfreude for poor Rose.
Her sister Nora (Emily Blunt) can’t keep a job and still lives at home with their father, Joe (Alan Arkin), who is eternally chasing his next get-rich-quick scheme, and so when a business opportunity presents itself, they are available to help Rose pursue it. The venture is crime-scene cleaning, dealing with the mess left behind by suicide and violent crime, and Rose calls her new business ‘Sunshine’ to put a positive spin on it. Megan Holley’s screenplay does well in flirting with the gallows humour of the murky business she places her characters in, and not being heavy-handed with the sentimentality, even as the work opens old emotional scars in Rose and Nora, and in the process wrests a few tears from us as viewers. However, much is left undeveloped, with story-threads just left hanging, or characters unexplored.
This isn’t an action-packed film, and so it falls on to the cast to sustain our interest, and in this director Christine Jeff is lucky to have scored a dream cast. Everything Amy Adams touches turns to gold, and even here where she is playing a character thoroughly down on her luck, she is luminous. Emily Blunt, meanwhile, is very much her equal. Alan Arkin is almost indistinguishable from his Little Miss Sunshine role, while rounding the cast out is a wonderfully under-stated performance from Clifton Collins Jr, who surely is a talent to watch.