Movie Reviews:It's a pleasure seeing that nice Amy Adams play a more believably-rounded character than a cartoon princess come to life (Enchanted) or a meekly skittish nun (Doubt). This time she's a struggling Albuquerque single mom named Rose, a former head cheerleader reduced to cleaning houses for a living. "Cheering is good," she explains at one point, "but it's not as marketable as you'd think."
Her former high-school boyfriend (Steve Zahn) is now a married cop, but that doesn't keep him from hooking up with Rose in cheap motel rooms. When he says there's decent money to be made in sanitizing crime scenes, Rose starts a one-woman business, but soon enlists her aimless sister Norah (Emily Blunt, doing a good job with what could have been a cliché "deadpan slacker" part).
Adams and Blunt, who both had small roles in 2007's Charlie Wilson's War, are enjoyably convincing as the responsible big sister and the less uptight younger one. Although the screenplay includes some black humor moments—such as Norah falling face-first into a bloody mattress, or Rose pointing out that her new profession is "a real growth industry"—most of it is more gently amusing. The last movie this appealingly sweet without being too sweet was Keri Russell's Waitress.
In supporting roles, Alan Arkin is their jobless dad Joe, essentially reprising his outspoken codger act from Little Miss Sunshine. Rose's son Oscar (Jason Spevack) has behavior problems that include licking things he shouldn't. Yes, both of those characters sound suspiciously "indie quirky." The screenplay (by first-timer Megan Holley) also includes some moments that feel more "written" than "real"—such as when Oscar uses a CB radio to talk to heaven, or when Joe can't figure out why restaurants don't want to buy raw shrimp from the trunk of his car.
Fortunately, Rose and Norah's well-crafted characters more than make up for the movie's minor flaws. When Rose tells a bathroom mirror that she is strong, she is powerful, she can do anything, and she is a winner, we can tell two important things: she doesn't believe it, but she desperately wants to. When her sister starts an unlikely friendship with a suicide's estranged daughter who doesn't know why Norah sought her out, we feel Norah's sincere guilt about deceiving the woman.
Director Christine Jeffs deftly keeps the humor low-key and the heavier scenes restrained, such as when Rose takes the time to sit quietly with an elderly widow. A plot point that sounds gimmicky but has a surprisingly emotional payoff involves the sisters' mysterious obsession with movies that include pie scenes. And a nighttime "trestling" shot, in which an ecstatic Norah is showered with sparks from the wheels of an overhead train, is a visual treat.
Sunshine Cleaning manages to turn the resentment, self-loathing, and shame that come with being lower-middle-class in America into a genuinely enjoyable movie that's more about hope than despair. That may be just what we need right now.
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