It’s rare that we stumble upon an indie film that we really hate. Admit it: sometimes they’re just so eccentric that we either have to like indie films for their originality or we’re so awestricken by their philosophical depth that we’re somehow tricked into liking them. However, with “Sunshine Cleaning,” the realness expressed through the plot as well as the acting needs no mind games to win over its viewers.
Sisters Rose (Amy Adams) and Norah Lorkowski (Emily Blunt) find themselves unhappy, to say the least, still living in the small town they grew up in. Rose, the older of the two and former head cheerleader of her high school, lives the typical single mom life, working at a dead-end job, cleaning the homes of those more affluent than her in order to support her ever peculiar son, Oscar.
We later learn that Oscar is the child of Rose and her now-married high school sweetheart with whom she is having a motel affair, and from this affair comes Rose’s internal conflict. She lacks any form of self-esteem in her earlier moments, reciting “I am strong. I am powerful,” to her faint reflection each day as her scared eyes routinely refute each sentence.
Norah, on the other hand, is the typical troublemaking younger sister. Newly fired from her job as a burger joint waitress, she hopelessly returns to her humble abode: her dad’s house. But these seemingly typical sisters go against expectations in order to make money and make it fast, opening Sunshine Cleaning, a crime scene clean-up business.
The sensitivity of their new business is touched upon numerous times throughout the film. As the sisters encounter suicide crime scenes, they are harshly reminded of the memory of their mother’s bloody suicide during their adolescent years. The obvious irony here is the suicide pushing these sisters away years ago and pulling them back together now. And as you can guess, this is where the sisterly bonding spiel comes in. Yes, expected, but not in a bad way.
The interesting thing about “Sunshine Cleaning,” though, is that even with a somewhat generic mold for a plot, the perfect delivery by Adams and Blunt takes a cliché story and makes it believable and unusual at the same time — the general points may be predictable, but the details are all a surprise.
I know what you’re thinking: Amy Adams? That chick who pranced around in “Enchanted” singing to imaginary birds and squirrels? But hats really do need to be tipped to Adams for her ability to flawlessly depict her character’s transition from a pathetic and naive has-been to a strong and fearless single mom and, more importantly, big sister. Adams successfully begs sympathy from the audience while at the same time never calls for pity even in her weakest moments, making her character impossible to dislike. You’ll find yourself rooting for her the entire time.
But the fine acting doesn’t stop there. Blunt, sarcastic and reckless, creates the perfect contrast to Adams’ Rose. Norah co-serves as the comedic relief of the film alongside Rose’s son Oscar. You wouldn’t expect such a humorously dark performance to resonate from Blunt, but she wears it well. Even at the points where we should hate her, we can’t. The honesty that Blunt lends her character adds to the film’s authenticity and makes the audience feel like they’re watching a real family try to move forward with its struggles, both together and individually.
What makes “Sunshine Cleaning” even harder not to like is the film’s seemingly endless supply of hope. Adams and Blunt, along with their cinematic father played by Alan Arkin (“Little Miss Sunshine”), instill a strange optimism in those watching their brilliant performances, yet avoid any cheesiness that usually oozes over the sides of these types of movies. It’s a strange hope, really — one that allows us to realize and accept the ruthlessness of life while still relentlessly hanging on. A ray of sunshine, you could say.