Sunshine Cleaning (15)

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The Independent Culture

Despite its title, Sunshine Cleaning rumbles with heavy storm clouds.

It's about two kinds of mess – the emotional fall-out that comes with being part of a family, and the literal fall-out from a crime scene (blood, biohazardous stuff) that someone has to clean up. It's a dirty job, and in small-town New Mexico former cheerleader Rose (Amy Adams) finds herself doing it. She needs the money – and what with a tricky seven-year-old son to look after, a cranky widower father (Alan Arkin) who loses money on get-rich-quick schemes, and a married cop (Steve Zahn) who's seeing her on the sly, she needs reserves of sunny patience, too. It doesn't help that her partner in grime – Sunshine Cleaning is the hopeful name they slap on the business – is her younger sister Norah (Emily Blunt), an underachiever who hides her disappointments beneath a brittle layer of sass.

Crime scene clean-up is a "growth industry" – or did they say gross industry? – but it may just be that the sisters are dealing with deeper psychological damage. The mournful blood-spattered scenes they encounter remind them of their own mother's death, which they hardly speak of. The restraint of Megan Holley's screenplay is admirable, particularly in a party scene where Rose meets up with her smugly married schoolfriends and feels obliged to explain how clean-up work requires more than just industrial fluids. There are people involved, too. "They've lost somebody, and we help. In some small way, we help..." It's a speech beautifully delivered by Adams, who brings out the decency in Rose even more winningly than she did with her role in Junebug. Blunt is a match for her as Norah, less sympathetic but as achingly human, the pain of being a screw-up perceptible in her snarky tone and her face's twitchy contours. Their truth-telling scene in a restaurant loo is terrific.

The New Zealand-born director Christine Jeffs does good work, too (as she did in her debut, Rain), managing a nifty balance between tragedy and farce. A high-spirited desperation is its keynote. The producers are the same who gave us Little Miss Sunshine, which would explain the familial dysfunction and the inclusion of Arkin as the dad. Does he get tired of playing this part? I hope not, because he does it better than just about anyone else. It's not on a par with Little Miss: there's some whimsical-tragical stuff about talking to the dead via CB radio, and the producers might want to think beyond using "Sunshine" in a title again. But I would have been sorry to miss this.