EDITOR'S NOTE: This review was originally published as part of indieWIRE's coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
Following her beautifully impressionistic debut "Rain" and the Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle "Sylvia," New Zealand director Christine Jeffs lands somewhere in between with "Sunshine Cleaning," an affecting, well-acted drama that casts an even brighter spotlight on rising starlet Amy Adams. First seen in slow-motion, dressed in a pink uniform and determinedly carrying an array of cleaning supplies as she charges forward, she is a priceless picture of feminine distress--one that helps carry the film, in its manic alterations between perky and pathetic.
Adams is Rose Lorkowski, a former head cheerleader and single Albuquerque mom who now reads daily affirmations ("you are strong") on orange post-it notes on her bathroom mirror before going to work as a cleaning lady. Eight-year-old son Oscar is a little troublemaker who gets his own slow-motion intro after trying to flush a sandwich down a toilet, as do the films' other main protagonists: Rose's sister Norah (Emily Blunt), a general fuck-up with blue streaks in her hair, who lives with their dad Joe (Alan Arkin), a failing self-styled entrepreneur who tries to sell everything from candied popcorn to shrimp to area businesses.
But the film opens on a far darker note: A man walks into a sporting goods store and blows his brains out with a shotgun. While the after-effects of the bloody suicide are played for some black comedy (some of his head, we are told, traveled all the way to the fishing department), Jeffs and screenwriter Megan Holley grow increasingly careful not to trivialize the deaths recounted in the film, striking a delicate, largely successful balance between the absurdly macabre and the poignantly mournful.
Through Rose's connection with her boyfriend, a married detective (played by an effortless Steve Zahn), she finds her best chance at quick financial success and getting troubled Oscar into private school in the lucrative field of crime-scene clean up. "It's a growth industry," she says cheerfully. Enlisting the help of her sister and an amicable man with one-arm who works in a biohazard supply store (a nicely laid bad Clifton Collins Jr., last seen in "Capote"), Rose starts up her toxic clean-up business, called Sunshine Cleaning.
What could have been merely an exercise in quirky indie comedy, however, becomes a more serious dramedy about strained family relationships and overcoming the loss of loved ones. At their first job cleaning up a domestic dispute that went horribly wrong, leading to blood splattered across a shower, for example, Norah utters, "Do you think they loved each other?" Never glib, the scenes of death and suicide finally pay off nicely - maybe too nicely -- with a personal revelation about the Lorkowski sisters's past that comes later in the film.
While the film builds to a moving conclusion, newbie scribe Holley doesn't always successfully balance her characters. Blunt's Norah is slightly underdeveloped, and an intriguing storyline involving her relationship with a dead woman's daughter ends without sufficient resolution.
But Jeffs more than makes up for such shortcomings with an astute attention to detail. If Adams is the gleaming, sympathetic star of the picture, the odds and ends of Albuquerque and the strange vintage props that fill Jeff's distinctive mise-en-scene (giant stuffed bunnies, a talking dear head) give the actress an utterly genuine and particular world in which to inhabit. Using several real New Mexico locations and local non-actors to populate the film, "Sunshine Cleaning" has an affectionate oddball charm and a sincere, enjoyable heart.
A better film than "Little Miss Sunshine," in which it may be inevitably compared because of its name, the same producers, Big Beach, and the appearance of Arkin, "Sunshine Cleaning" stumbles only when it tries to recreate its predecessor's obvious crowd-pleasing tendencies with a forced upbeat ending (complete with rock classic "Spirit in the Sky"). "Sunshine Cleaning" is best when low-key--a conversation in a local supermarket, or, Amy Adams, crouching down in long shot to comfort another grieving soul.