Sunshine Cleaning shares a lot with another dark indie comedy about economic difficulty and family dysfunction. A me-too attempt to replicate Little Miss Sunshine's success, Sunshine Cleaning casts Alan Arkin as a foul-mouthed, swindler grandpa, a very similar role to the one that won him an Oscar. There's also a precocious kid that is only understood by his family, and plenty of pathos mixed in with the mostly light tone. The most important thing Sunshine Cleaning shares with Little Miss Sunshine is that they're both plainly good movies, stumbling into cutesiness on occasion, but still about recognizable people going through recognizable problems.
The business is the effect, and Sunshine Cleaning also addresses the causes that put Rose and Norah on this path. Both are squeaking by when the film opens, with Rose working as a maid and Norah being fired from her waitressing job. Rose's young son Oscar (Jason Spevack)is being difficult at school, to the point where he's recommended to be medicated, and her and Norah's father, played by Arkin, is one failed scam away from destitution. It's a succinct picture of the working poor, barely keeping it together. They'd be much worse off without each other, and the chemistry the actors have with each other is readily apparent. Norah is the permissive aunt, Oscar loves spending time with his grandpa, and as the responsible one, Rose is not just a hectoring killjoy. It's easy to root for this family's success.
As the leads, Adams and Blunt are both excellent. In 2008, Adams was just leaving the buoyant Junebug/Enchanted stage of her career for the more serious Doubt/David O. Russell stage, and she has a foot in both worlds here. Rose is a pessimist masquerading as a sunny optimist, certain things will fail but constantly trying to paste her happy face on anyways. Her aspirational mantra, recited every day, might lack conviction, but when things are going well, there's no one better at selling the depths and relief of infectious joy as Adams. As the hipster-y sister, Blunt is a nice counterweight to Adams. She gets most of the laughs in the film, but can be cutting when called for. Her Norah sees through her sister's facade and isn't afraid to call her on it. Norah is also given to indulge in the raw emotion that Rose doesn't have time for, and a scene involving her under a train bridge proves to be one of the film's best, pure catharsis that Blunt luxuriates in. Most importantly, the two actresses are believable as siblings with a long history, as their relationship is the key to the film.
The body-disposal elements are opportunities for emotion and black comedy. Setting aside the human suffering that exists in the background, Rose is just happy to get a gig, accepting calls with way too much enthusiasm. Writer Megan Holley wisely doesn't use Rose's excitement to embarrass her or teach her a cheap lesson. It's always clear that a person died in this home or apartment, but it's also clear that this is going to bring Rose to the next level of income. She can be solemn and happy at the same time. The inclusion of the Rajskub character emphasizes the dual nature of the business. All that's left of the deceased's body might be a stain on an easy chair, but they also leave family and friends who shouldn't be left with their loved one's gore after they're gone. It feels like an accurate and fair portrayal for anyone that does this kind of work.
Sunshine Cleaning engages in indie tropes that keep it from greatness, mostly revolving around Oscar, and it's obvious how much it's in debt to Little Miss Sunshine. Still, director Christine Jeffs' film can stand on its own with the aid of its empathetic script and the endearing lead performances. Even when maggots are falling on their heads, Adams and Blunt are supremely watchable. B