On the surface, "Sunshine Cleaning," about a small-time crime scene cleanup crew in a crumbling corner of Albuquerque, is an offbeat and oddly endearing drama, leavened with just the right amount of comedy to even things out. But dig in a bit deeper, and you uncover a smartly done morality tale that couldn't be more in sync with these troubled times.
With Amy Adams as Rose, a struggling single mother on the downside of a life she expected more from, and Emily Blunt as Norah, her younger sister caught in a free fall of her own, director Christine Jeffs has given us the sorts of faces that have mostly been forgotten these days -- people and places already on the edge, hit by the one-two punch of bad breaks and an unforgiving economy that has left so many reeling.
When we first see Rose, she's watching a better life than hers through an open window while she works. All the optimism the former prom queen tries to muster can't mask the sobering reality she faces. Her days are spent cleaning other people's houses; her precocious young son is kicked out of school because she refuses to medicate him; the private school Oscar (Jason Spevack) needs, she can't afford; Mac (Steve Zahn), the married detective she's having an affair with, is not leaving his wife any time soon. Her escape plan, a real estate license, is just the latest in a pile of unrealized dreams.
Opportunity, when it comes, is covered in the messy debris of death and disappointment, when her lover mentions there is money to be made in cleaning up the aftermath of crimes. And so, equipped with a can of cleanser, a pair of rubber gloves and a smile, Rose faces a blood-spattered bathroom and begins to build a better life, a reluctant Norah by her side.
Turns out, they are quite good at this cleaning, and the sisters find it surprisingly rewarding. For Norah, the work lets her into someone else's life in ways that help her start to make sense of her own and that of the mother she and Rose lost growing up.
For Rose, it's something else again. As she tries to explain during a dreadful baby shower, surrounded by the condescending faces of girls she knew in high school, she and Norah come into people's lives when something terrible has happened and "make it better."
But then Rose has been trying to "make it better" ever since her mother died. The empty space left by her death is central to the film and the family, as powerful a force as anything else life throws at them. It is a loss that is nearly always felt in small but sad ways like Norah's memento box with the lipsticked stubs of a few cigarettes.
The movie is made up of so many singular and simple pleasures, ones that Jeffs and screenwriter Megan Holley infuse with such pure grace that you want to hold on to even the most ordinary ones. But let's start with Adams.
Something extraordinary happens when you watch her face, stripped of makeup, tiny worry lines appearing between the freckles. Everything about Rose is faded, as if she, like the rest of her life, has been through the wash one too many times. We are that close, and she is that tired. The daily affirmations she uses to get through another day are never enough.
Where Adams' Rose keeps it together by sheer will, determined to "figure it out," whatever it is that day, Blunt's Norah, with her bohemian clothes, her weed and her heavy charcoal smudge of eyes, is mostly content in the role of sarcastic but unreliable sibling. There is something wonderfully easy about the actresses' relationship on screen -- Adams' steel and Blunt's slouch perfect counterpoints.
But then this is a film where everyone contributes to pay the rent. Alan Arkin, as Rose and Norah's father, and soon Oscar's main companion, is engaging as always as the willful but wise grandfather, with a string of get-rich-quick schemes souring on him. Spevack's Oscar is an inquisitive and soulful kid who uses a CB radio in his mom's van to press God with the questions no one else will answer. Clifton Collins Jr., who gave killer Perry Smith in "Capote" a poignant sensitivity, is Winston, a one-armed model airplane builder/bio-waste store manager who becomes one of the few men in Rose's life who wants to do more than sleep with her.
If Arkin's off-center patriarch seems familiar, it's probably because it echoes his Oscar-winning performance as the grandfather in another quirky family movie, 2006's "Little Miss Sunshine." That film, which was a venture of the same producers who are behind "Sunshine Cleaning," began its road trip from the family's home in the everywhere/nowhere America of Albuquerque too.
This time around, we stay in town, with Jeffs and longtime collaborator and director of photography John Toon creating the sisters' down-market existence in decaying stucco homes, rusting trailer parks and faceless apartment buildings, the heat and dust of New Mexico kicking up desperation everywhere.
But facing it down are Adams' brave, trembling smiles, and the raw courage that abounds in a family that finds a way to cope even when the walls are closing in on them. Despite the hard times everywhere, "Sunshine Cleaning," is never overly sentimental, and that is not always a good thing, as it sometimes pulls back when it shouldn't, keeping us at too much of an emotional distance even when things go terribly wrong.
Thanks to Holley's screenplay, there are themes aplenty running through "Sunshine Cleaning," such as how a family copes with the tragedies of the past and new ones in the making and the way older sisters think they are required to look after things. It is a story with economic lessons everywhere, a fitting eulogy for the culture of greed and a reminder that hard work -- not miracles -- will save you. When it all comes together, you are left with a tableau of hope, humor and a truth-telling reality that is a salve for the recessionary soul.
MPAA rating: R for language, disturbing images, some sexuality and drug use.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
Playing: Landmark 12, 10850 W. Pico Blvd., (310) 474-6291, and the ArcLight Hollywood, 6360 Sunset Blvd., (323) 464-1465. A wide release is scheduled later this month.