“Pleasant” can be as unkind a critical word as “cute,” but Sunshine Cleaning is nothing more than pleasant — a low-tide look at a pair of sisters struggling with their past while forging their future.
Megan Holley’s script for this low-tide look at a pair of sisters struggling with the past to forge their future feels like it’s been Sundance-workshopped to death. However, the cast — led by Amy Adams, Emily Blunt and Alan Arkin — establishes a vibrantly odd family bond that sustains Sunshine through its dimmer portions.
Rose Lorkowski (Adams) cleans up others’ trash while hoarding enough emotional junk of her own to fill a box of lawn-and-leaf bags. Once head cheerleader and girlfriend to the high-school quarterback, Rose is now a single mom, a maid for hire and mistress to that former athlete, Mac (Steve Zahn), now a cop.
It’s on his recommendation, though, that Rose pursues her own business — cleaning up after crime and suicide scenes. The professionals charge $3,000 for the smallest jobs, and Rose will do the same work for only $500.
Joining Rose is her younger sister, Norah (Blunt), a layabout better at losing jobs than holding them. While their father, Joe (Arkin), watches Rose’s son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), the sisters find a natural way to work out their past grief while serving as ersatz grief counselors for those left behind.
Reaching back to her breakthrough performance in Junebug, Adams creates a woman persistently desperate to please, to recapture one shred of high-school dignity.
When Rose lays out what she doesn’t have from Mac, she’s really talking about all he’s saddled her with. And her business becomes as much a matter of gaining perspective as it is prospecting success. (Adams is an empathetic marvel in a scene where she comforts the widow of a suicide victim.)
Then again, there’s the question of whether Rose wants the connotations of entrepreneurship more than its responsibilities. Adams sells Rose’s tussle with that question and, later, turns what could be an insufferably corny one-sided CB conversation into a mildly defiant damnation for someone who’s left her behind.
Excepting brief betrayal from her British accent, Blunt disappears into a dressed-down role — Janeane Garofalo by way of Juliette Lewis. Catharsis is hard to sell without resorting to melodrama, but she does it in a wordless mid-movie release.
And as Arkin shows disdain for drudgery and dotes on his grandson — no entrepreneurial slouch himself, showcasing working-class ingenuity in the Lorkowski family — it’s proof Arkin truly is a national comic treasure.
In a smaller role as a one-handed cleaning-supply salesman, Clifton Collins Jr. has a sequence of great moments — namely one where he seizes on an opportunity for courtship with Rose.
All of them elevate a film in which each sister has a Big Important Scene to verbalize how they’re connected with the victims and survivors in “a strangely intimate way.” It’s easy enough to see without being conked over the head, and Holley’s script cheats a metaphor by leaving out a crucial piece of information until the midpoint.
Better, though, is Adams and Blunt’s personification of sisters who’ve held onto and internalized their pain into something of a domino effect. They’re the real rays in an otherwise overcast dramedy.
Sunshine Cleaning is presented on a BD-50 dual-layer disc with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer. Given the plethora of low-light scenes, this visual presentation captures the deep-black contrasts as well as the pink-and-purple sunsets of the Southwest.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround isn’t forceful with its lossless audio, although moments of gunfire and rumbling trains give the subwoofer a workout. And the sound field convincingly recreates the ambience of Albuquerque’s urban sprawl.
Extras include: commentary with Holley and producer Glenn Williamson; Sunshine Cleaning: A Fresh Look at a Dirty Business, a behind-the-scenes featurette; and trailers for Paper Heart, Last Chance Harvey, Henry Poole is Here, The Visitor and Sleepwalking.