Starring: Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin
Directed by: Christine Jeffs (“Sylvia”)
Written by: Megan Holley (debut)
It’s no surprise first-time screenwriter Megan Holley fashioned the script for her dark comedy “Sunshine Cleaning” from a report on National Public Radio. It’s just the type of mildly off-beat story one would expect to hear on a show like “All Things Considered”: Two female friends from Seattle start a crime-scene clean-up company.
The inspiration itself might have easily ruined a feature film — characters written with sensitivity and humor usually don’t ride tragedy’s coattails — but Holley and director Christine Jeffs (“Sylvia”) are able to detail the job’s unpleasantness with fake blood and synthetic brain chunks while still managing to create sympathetic characters and a strangely intimate world.
Relocating the women to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and rewriting the female duo as sisters, “Sunshine Cleaning” follows Rose Lorkowski (two-time Academy Award nominee Adams), a 30-something single mother who’s making ends meet as a cleaning lady. Once the popular head cheerleader in high school, Rose relives her glory days through an ongoing affair with married ex-boyfriend Mac (Zahn), who now works as a police officer.
Rose decides she needs a career change after she ends up cleaning the house of a former classmate. She’s also desperate to make extra money to send her eccentric son to a private school because his principal wants her to medicate the boy for his harmless, albeit peculiar, classroom antics (most recently, licking everything he can put his tongue to).
Taking advice from Mac, Rose begins mopping up the blood, and she recruits her burned-out sister Norah (Blunt), who has emotional problems stemming from (minor spoiler alert) their mother’s suicide when they were kids. Why these two would ever decide to start a company where suicide cleanup is part of the job is beyond comprehension, but the lazy parallel does most of the screenwriter’s heavy lifting, and the gals are fairly good at what they do, despite their initial naiveté concerning biohazard-disposal regulations.
Luckily, they receive a crash course in decomp (Tip Number One: You can’t just throw a blood-soaked mattress in a Dumpster) from Winston (Collins), a one-armed model-builder who owns a cleaning-supplies store.
Rose and Norah become haz-mat-suited cleaning women with support from their father (Academy Award winner Alan Arkin, who basically rehashes his grandfatherly role from “Little Miss Sunshine” minus the cocaine), and attempt to scrub away death’s aftermath. In one subplot, Norah searches out a woman named Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub of “24”), a suicide’s daughter whose photo Norah discovers while cleaning up the mess left behind.
It’s these small strokes of sincerity — away from the yellow police tape, decontamination suits, and a few standard pseudo-indie-film clichés — that make “Sunshine Cleaning” a bittersweet, honest, and well-acted gem.