On its surface, "Sunshine Cleaning" sounds like it was created with all the elements necessary for a Cliched Indie Film Cocktail.
Dysfunctional family: check.
Dark, offbeat comedic scenes: check.
Alan Arkin as the curmudgeonly grandfather: check.
Bleak setting: check.
Whimsical, hipster soundtrack: check.
Lead character sees American dream turning into American nightmare: check.
Tragic secret in lead character's past: check.
Weird little boy with a funny name for a little boy: check.
Quirky supporting cast: check.
And did I mention Alan Arkin as the curmudgeonly grandfather?
In the wrong hands, "Sunshine Cleaning" could have been a movie that serves as a cheese grater to your sensibilities, just rubbing 'em raw until you want to pull your hair out. But thanks to director Christine Jeffs, a smart but never smug script from Megan Holley and the uniformly excellent cast, this is one of the most entertaining films of the young year.
It was only a matter of time before Amy Adams and Emily Blunt played sisters. (The only thing missing is Kristen Wiig as sister number three.) Adams is Rose Lorkowski, who was a big deal in high school but is now a struggling single mom who cleans houses for a living and dreams of getting a real estate license. Problem is, when she's supposed to be in class she's shacking up in cheap hotels with her former high school boyfriend, who's now an Albuquerque cop. A married Albuquerque cop.
And yet Rose is the more stable of the siblings. Blunt's Norah is the spiritual twin of Anne Hathaway's character in "Rachel Getting Married"---a consistent (bleep)-up who makes a career out of disappointing people. She's living at home with Dad (Arkin), who did his best to raise the girls on his own but is something of a screw-up himself. The guy's about 70 and he's still working on sales schemes destined to go wrong. He's practically a 21st century Willy Loman.
Rose is the kind of insecure optimist who puts Post-It notes on her mirror to remind herself she's a good person and she's going to make it. But you also get the sense she's about one setback away from having a nuclear meltdown. When she stumbles into the opportunity to make some real money in the lucrative but off-the-charts disgusting field of crime-scene scrub-up and biohazard removal----that is, cleaning up houses after someone has been murdered or has committed suicide----she plunges knee-deep into it, dragging Norah with her.
Amy Adams is a big star and Emily Blunt is on her way to becoming a star, yet we believe them as working class siblings trying to stay one step ahead of the poverty line. This isn't like watching Jennifer Lopez swishing around with a duster in "Maid in Manhattan." The dark gimmick of having the sisters doing crime-scene clean-up yields a couple of somber subplots and is never played for easy laughs or gross-out gags. (Well, hardly ever.) When Rose finally has it with her sister, when she tries to explain her job to a group of former high school friends who look at her like she's an alien, and when she strikes up a relationship with an unlikely counterpart----we feel for her. We want karma to give this girl a friggin' break.
There are a few missteps along the way, where the script hits the accelerator a bit too heavily. Does Rose's little boy have to be such an oddball? Does the guy in the chemical supply shop need to have just the one arm? Couldn't Grandpa's schemes be a bit more realistic? And when Rose tries to speak to a deceased relative via CB radio, you just wish the entire scene had been removed.
But these are minor moments in an otherwise triumphant small film that gives us characters and situations we're still thinking about long after the movie is over. Anyone who says they don't release smart little movies in March is wrong.