Sunshine Cleaning, a lightly scented candle of an indie film about a pair of sisters trying to straighten out their skewed lives by starting a small business together, is worth seeing for two reasons: its skilled, committed actresses and its Wes Anderson-inflected grace notes.
Amy Adams, that chipper redhead with the Lillian Gish eyes who may have been put on earth to humanize the failures and disappointments of pretty girls in dire personal and financial straits, stars as Rose Lorkowski, a maid and single mom whose sole source of pleasure seems to involve brief hotel-room assignations with Mac (Steve Zahn), her married, high school sweetheart. After Mac tips her off about the money to be made cleaning up crime scenes, Rose enlists her ne'er-do-well younger sister Norah (Emily Blunt) to spray and wipe the leftover blood and guts from Albuquerque, New Mexico's low-rent, who-cares outskirts.
Director Christine Jeffs and screenwriter Megan Holley handle their male performers with a good-natured shrug, but they don't really care about the subplots involving Mac, a one-armed salesman (a serene Clifton Collins Jr.), Rose's huckster dad (an inoffensive Alan Arkin), and Rose's misunderstood son (an insufferable Jason Spevack).
The two sisters' crime-scene vignettes are sometimes funny and sometimes unexpectedly touching, as when Rose offers to sit with an old woman too shaken by the suicide in her house to enter the front door. But those interludes are only important to Holley and Jeffs inasmuch as they document Adams' and Blunt's efforts to put real, confused people onscreen. Rose's and Norah's new business allows them to find meaning in their work — which, along with raising a child, is perhaps the toughest, least glamorous, yet most significant task adults face.
It is nice to see Blunt in a slightly larger role. She was the only lovable hypocrite in The Devil Wears Prada, and her performance as a dangerous, callow teenager in 2004's My Summer of Love is well worth seeking out. She gets the Kat Dennings/Zooey Deschanel part in Sunshine Cleaning, but she's awkward and intelligent enough to inflect a stock role in subtle ways. As an unlikely friend, Mary Lynne Rajskub sketches out a tightly wound portrait of female loneliness.
But Adams is the star. Her face is always hovering between abject failure and wide-eyed astonishment, and following those swings is often the most exciting thing about the movie. Rose registers the horrors of unexpected reunions and middle-class female bonding rituals especially well, most notably when she excuses herself from an inane round of baby-shower party games.
Impressively, Jeffs invokes and recreates the tone of the offbeat rites that have briefly illuminated recent Wes Anderson disappointments like The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited. Sunshine Cleaning isn't as flashy or as fussy as those movies, but it contains some inventive, lower-case scenes worthy of a 2009 indie-film time capsule, as when Norah shouts with reckless glee that melts into sorrow as a train shoots sparks a few inches above her head.
Opening Friday, April 3rd
Ridgeway Four, Studio on the Square