Cleaning Up Her Act: Adams is the one bright spot in Sunshine Cleaning.
Cleaning Up Her Act: Adams is the one bright spot in Sunshine Cleaning.

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What does Sunshine Cleaning have in common with 2006 Academy Award nominee Little Miss Sunshine? The same producers, which has been trumpeted. A similar title, which is obvious. And then there’s Alan Arkin as a kooky grandpa, a plot-centric van, and a goofy-cute kid growing up around some pretty screwed-up adults. So it’s kind of hard to watch Christine Jeffs’ new dramedy and not continually think: rip-off.

It’d all be a waste of film stock if it weren’t for Amy Adams, who stars as Rose Lorkowski, a single mother and former prom queen who’s now scraping by as a maid in Albuquerque. In addition to her not-exactly-angelic son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), Rose feels as if she needs to look after her directionless, angst-y younger sister, Norah (Emily Blunt), and their widowed father (Arkin). Rose’s personal life is as off-track as her professional one, her only source of affection being the motel-room trysts she has with her married high-school sweetheart, a cop named Mac (Steve Zahn).

When Mac bails on Rose one night, she lies on the bed repeating her daily affirmation, only with a twist: “I am strong. I am powerful. I am a fucking loser,” she says before letting out the kind of laugh that can be followed only by tears. It’s a bit of a shock, albeit a welcome one, to hear the former Enchanted princess curse. Adams’ eyes are still bright in Sunshine Cleaning, though they’re rimmed with the marks of exhaustion. And when Oscar’s school principal demands he be put on medication, Rose tells her son that he doesn’t have to go back to school, that she’ll “just have to figure something out.” Again, there’s optimism in Adams’ voice, but it’s thickly underlined with a yet-another-problem sigh.

It’s a lovely, aching performance, one that might have been matched by Blunt’s if only Megan Holley’s debut script didn’t short the character of Norah or, along with Jeffs’ increasingly heavy-handed direction, go off the rails completely in the film’s final chapters. Rose wants to send Oscar to a private school and decides, based on Mac’s suggestion, to make some quick cash by putting her cleaning skills to more profitable use by advertising herself as a crime-scene scrubber. She recruits Norah, basically by telling her she’s got nothing better to do with her days once her dark makeup and Avril Lavigne wardrobe are in place.

And so under New Mexico’s cheery, cloudless skies, Rose and Norah proceed to retch and brood as they mop up blood from the scenes of domestic disputes and suicides. The latter is a touchy subject, since the sisters’ luminous mother killed herself, too, as Jeffs hints in flashbacks, the full story bathetically revealed as Norah “trestles” and cries one drunken night. Watching Norah break down is Lynn (24’s Mary Lynn Rajskub), whom Norah began following after she and Rose cleaned out the trailer of Lynn’s estranged mother. There’s a hint of a romance between Lynn and Norah, but not only is it never developed, the whole subplot is all but dropped by the film’s end.

Besides its unoriginality, Sunshine Cleaning’s worst offense is its bobbled tone. Jeffs, who last directed 2003’s similarly mishandled Sylvia, pairs wacky music with scenes of a house being accidentally burned down, for instance, and you never know for sure whether the one-armed owner of a biohazard-handling supplies store, Winston (Clifton Collins Jr.), is sweet on Rose or finds her obvious attempts to take advantage of his kindness annoying. Of course, it’s probably a bit of both, but their every encounter just feels awkward, especially when Winston attends poor Oscar’s adults-only birthday party. There’s no mistaking Rose’s and Norah’s sisterly back-and-forth for anything else, however; their ability to simultaneously love and hurt one another is the truest part of the film. But then Jeffs erases even that with a “Spirit in the Sky”–accompanied coda, ensuring you’ll forget Sunshine Cleaning’s best moments with a roll of the eyes.