Let the Sunshine in
Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) is a single mom struggling to raise her precocious young son on her meagre cleaning lady salary in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her younger sister Norah (Emily Blunt) is the family screw-up whose dyed hair, dark eye make-up and tattoos are a counterpoint to her sister’s over-bright demeanour and can-do attitude. But we soon find out that Norah’s forced pessimism and Rose’s semi-defeated optimism do little to disguise the emotional vulnerability that is the crux of this dark comedy by New Zealand-born director Christine Jeffs.
When Rose’s son is expelled from public school and she needs to make some fast money to send him to private school, she and Norah start a crime scene clean-up company and find themselves scrubbing bloodstains and learning how to dispose of biohazards. As gory as it sounds, the pair end up bonding over their shared effort and the absurdity of their situation and the movie strikes a balance between comedy and earnestness, which yields more than one genuinely touching moment.
“We go into people’s lives when they have experienced something profound and sad,” Rose explains to a group of incredulous women at a baby shower, “And we make it better.”
As good as these two are at cleaning up other people’s messes, they fail spectacularly at handling their own. Rose, who was captain of her high school cheerleading squad and dated the quarterback has been reduced to having an affair with said quarterback, who married another woman, and struggles to make ends meet. Norah still lives with their father (played adroitly by Alan Arkin, who was the heroin-snorting grandfather in Little Miss Sunshine) and can’t hold down a steady job.
It would seem to be an overly emotional storyline, and a downer at that, but the film never sacrifices its tongue-in-cheek tone to cheap sentimentalism and the jokes never overstep the tragic-comic framework that gives this movie its edge. This balance is played out best in Norah’s character, whose mishaps run the gamut from leading on a lesbian female acquaintance (played by 24’s Mary Lynn Rajskub) with an awkward attempt to help and then befriend her, to literally burning a house down.
Through it all, stellar performances by Adams and Blunt keep things light while handing some pretty heavy shit. It’s obvious that the similarities to Little Miss Sunshine don’t stop with the title or Arkin’s turn as a grandpa—the movies share producers and a certain recognizable quirkiness—but that’s not to say that Sunshine Cleaning is riding on Little Miss’ coattails. It’s a gem in its own right and shouldn’t be missed.