A film whose center is revealed to be the memories shared by two sisters, Christine Jeffs’ Sunshine Cleaning gets better if its viewers forget a lot. Forget Alan Arkin’s presence as the crankily affectionate grandfather. Forget the word “sunshine” in the movie’s title. Forget these indicators of indy-film credibility—and consign to oblivion the hokey use of a CB radio in a rusty Econoline van—and you are left with a beautifully acted study of the relationship between those sisters as they struggle on the edge of financial and emotional stability.
Anyone who saw Enchanted or Junebug knows that Amy Adams can sell any role. Especially in Enchanted, where it would have been easy to play the part of the wide-eyed Giselle with a dash of insincerity and a wink to the audience, Adams brought an unassailable conviction to every scene. What else is there to be in life, she seemed to say, than a princess stuck in Manhattan eager to return to the kingdom?
Or, in the case of Sunshine Cleaning, who else is there to be in life but Rose Lorkowski, a single mother starting a crime-scene clean-up business with her irresponsible sister Norah (Emily Blunt)? Here, Adams is well paired with Emily Blunt who overcomes the difficulty of an American accent to portray Norah’s interesting mixture of vulnerability and defiance, cluelessness and shrewdness. Whenever the movie is dealing with just these two—either in the same scene or through cross cuts to paired solo scenes—it is very strong indeed.
Jeffs must have cast these roles with an eye to her actresses’ appearance. For though they look nothing like sisters, they each seem to fit their roles perfectly. Rose is all eyes, big blue ones, willing herself to see only the good that might come her way if she can manage to convince herself of it. It’s as if the wider she opens her eyes, often fighting back tears, the less of the rough world around her she will admit into existence. Blunt’s Norah, on the other hand, is all lips, eager to consume things—to take everything in, even to the point of excess—but also pouting like the abandoned child that, at heart, she is. Jeffs brings her camera in to a pore-revealing closeness throughout the film—beginning with the film’s otherwise throwaway shot—no doubt because she knows that we will watch Adams’ and Blunt’s faces with fascination.
In one scene filmed in the milky white of a restaurant bathroom, Rose and Norah move from confrontation to an exchange of memories that gestures towards the film’s core. But the scene actually offers much more than that. Not so much exchanging memories, the two sisters are creating a shared memory for each other, with each other. They begin with different perspectives on the same event: Norah remembers pain, while Rose fittingly remembers dedication. Then we watch mesmerized as they lob bits of their past back and forth, their faces revealing more and more about who they are and about what ties them together.
Later on, Jeffs and screenwriter Megan Holley orchestrate a moving sequence of cross cuts between the two sisters, intercut with a third element that ties them together beautifully. It’s a lovely piece of filmmaking and, if it is a bit over-sentimental, we are inclined to grant Jeffs, Holley, and their actors some leeway here.
Other aspects of the film shouldn’t, however, get such a free pass. (See Slate's Dana Stevens' review for more on this.) That business with the CB radio, and the wide-eyed child whose only imperfection is a precocious intelligence that makes him unfit for the mainstream world, and other trappings of the Sundance aesthetic weaken the film. (And was there really no one else available for an almost cameo role than Robert Redford’s daughter?) Generally restrained, even when conveying the appealing slapstick of the sisters’ clean-up efforts, Jeffs occasionally overdoes it with her camerawork—either through an extreme wide-angle shot of southwestern desolation, or through an overly lyrical sequence involving sparks from a train.
Sunshine Cleaning is a film about people trying to stop circling the drain. They go over their one important memory over and over again, or they shut another memory out completely—whatever works to keep them in this barely sustainable limbo. All around them are signs of mobility: the Porsche of one of Rose’s high school classmates; the squad cars that are never far from the clean-up jobs Rose and Norah go to. Meanwhile, Rose drives a beat-up hatchback to her pre-crime-scene job at Pretty Clean; and her father drives an old Caddy with its trunk full of whatever it is he’s desperate to deal. It’s a stark contrast, and Jeffs makes sure we notice it. From the film’s opening sequence to its final overhead shot, we know that the agents of change in these people’s lives are also what can trap them. When we see that final shot, with its straight line of movement, we are glad to know Rose and Norah have stopped circling and have found a way to go forward.