Sunshine Cleaning (R)
What does Sunshine Cleaning have in common with 2006 Academy Award nominee Little Miss Sunshine? The same producers, which has been trumpeted. A similar title, which is obvious.
And then there's Alan Arkin as a kooky grandpa. A plot-centric van. And a goofy-cute kid growing up around some screwed-up adults. So it's kind of hard to watch Christine Jeff's new dramedy and not continually think: rip-off.
It'd all be a waste of film if it weren't for Amy Adams, the Castle Rock-raised actress who stars as Rose Lorkowski, a single mom and former prom queen who's eking by as a maid in Albuquerque, N.M. In addition to her not-exactly-angelic son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), Rose feels she needs to look after her directionless, angsty younger sister, Norah (Emily Blunt), and their widowed father (Arkin). Rose's personal life is as off-track as her professional one, her only source of affection being the motel-room trysts she has with her married high-school sweetheart, a cop named Mac (Steve Zahn).
When Mac bails on Rose one night, she lies on the bed repeating her daily affirmation, only with a twist: "I am strong. I am powerful. I am a fucking loser." It's a bit of a shock, albeit a welcome one, to hear the former Enchanted princess curse.
But Adams' eyes, if rimmed with exhaustion, are still bright in Sunshine Cleaning. And when Oscar's school principal demands he be medicated, Rose tells her son that he doesn't have to go back. Again, there's optimism in Adams' voice, underlined with a yet-another-problem sigh. It's a lovely, aching performance, one that might have been matched by Blunt's if only Megan Holley's debut script didn't short her character or go off the rails completely in the film's final chapters.
Rose wants to send Oscar to a private school and decides to make some quick cash by putting her cleaning skills to use as a crime-scene scrubber. She recruits Norah, basically by telling her she's got nothing better to do with her days. And so under New Mexico's cheery, cloudless skies, Rose and Norah proceed to retch and feel sad as they mop up blood after domestic disputes and suicides.
You see, the sisters' luminous mother killed herself, too, which Jeff shows in flashbacks, the full story bathetically revealed as Norah cries one drunken night. Watching Norah break down is Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), whom Norah began following after she and Rose cleaned out the trailer of Lynn's mother. There's a hint of a romance between Lynn and Norah, but not only is it never developed, the whole subplot is all but dropped by the film's end.
Besides its familiarity, the worst offense of Sunshine Cleaning is its bobbled tone. Jeff pairs wacky music with scenes of a house accidentally being burned down, for instance, and you never know for sure whether the owner of a biohazard-handling-supplies store, Winston (Clifton Collins Jr.), is sweet on Rose or finds her obvious attempts to take advantage of his kindness annoying.
There's no mistaking Rose and Norah's sisterly back-and-forth, however, for anything else; their ability to simultaneously love and hurt one another is the truest part of the film. But then Jeff erases that with a "Spirit in the Sky"-accompanied coda, ensuring you'll forget Sunshine Cleaning's best moments as your eyes roll.