Sunshine Cleaning (2008)

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Sunshine Cleaning, which briefly graced the big screens a few years back, is the story of the Lorkowski sisters who eke out a living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Amy Adams plays Rose. Rose once ruled the school as the head cheerleader and she also dated the quarterback. Unfortunately, the years post-graduation haven’t been so kind. She toils as a house cleaner and struggles to raise her offbeat son as a single mom. She’s also having an affair with her now-married high school sweetheart who works as a cop.

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Emily Blunt plays Rose’s younger sister, Norah. Norah is the rebellious bad girl, with the tattoos, black eyeliner and shitty attitude to prove it. She parties all night and sleeps all day. And as the film begins she’s just been fired from her waitressing job, and has no other job prospects on the horizon.

On the advice of her ex-boyfriend, Rose begins a post-crime cleaning business and brings Norah on to help clean up scenes of murders, suicides and other deathly messes after the cops have finished their investigative work. It’s one thing clean up the homes of living people, but it’s quite different to clean up the blood, urine, feces, maggots and vomit of the deceased. But soon Rose and Norah learn there are very human stories among the gore.

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At one home, Norah finds a fanny pack filled with photographs of a young girl. This young girl is the daughter of the deceased, and she’s still living in town. Norah starts stalking the woman (played by Mary Lynn Rajskub) and they end up forming an odd and awkward friendship. Rajskub’s character can’t quite figure out why Norah is so interested in her life, and during an embarrassing moment, she thinks Norah’s interest is sexual, and acts accordingly.

Meanwhile, Rose strikes up a friendship with the one-armed owner of an industrial cleaning products store named Winston (Clifton Collins, Jr.). Winston takes a liking to Rose’s son and he helps the two out when they get into a bind. But despite some of the success Rose is having with the business she can’t help but feel like a big loser, especially when she comes in contact with some of her old classmates who are now living successful lives and living in fancy McMansions, some of which Rose has cleaned. At a baby shower, Rose tries to explain her life to her old classmates, and her shame is unmistakable. As is the thinly veiled smugness and condescension of her fellow high school grads.
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Rounding out the family is Rose and Norah’s father, a not always successful salesman, played by Alan Arkin. His love for his daughters never wavers, but it’s not always enough to keep things together. Especially, with a family secret about the girls’ mother that still haunts them as adults.

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Sunshine Cleaning is a sweet film that will probably bring comparisons to another indie flick, Little Miss Sunshine (and not just because of the appearance of Alan Arkin and sunshine in the title). There is not one bad performance in the film, but this is truly Blunt and Adams’ film. And Adams continues to impress me. I’ve loved her since her Oscar-nominated turn in June Bug. I just know she’ll get that big prize one day.

Sunshine Cleaning also proves that there is validity in every job, even those without a fancy title or a huge paycheck. There can be grace in the moments of grotesque. This is best explained by Rose when she tells her old high school friends, “We come into people’s lives when they have experienced something profound and sad, and we help. In some way, we help.”

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