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Sister Act Mops Up Blood and Tears

Sunshine Cleaning (2009)

Lacey Terrell/Overture Films

“Sunshine Cleaning” often adheres to Sundance archetypes, particularly those featured in another recent Sundance hit with “Sunshine” in its title. A happy-sad, quirky story of a dysfunctional family, the movie features wide shots of the main characters framed against off-kilter backdrops, close-ups on cathartic moments, Alan Arkin as a kooky grandpa and an oversized van.

However, the comparisons stop there, as “Sunshine Cleaning” quickly establishes itself as a work of more meaning and substance than its better know predecessor. It benefits greatly from the inspired casting by director Christine Jeffs and her team, and the insights into loss and motherhood professed by Megan Holley’s screenplay.

The film stars Amy Adams – so skilled at finding notes of compassion and grace – and the no less superb Emily Blunt, respectively as sisters Rose and Norah Lorkowski. As the story begins, they’re living a lower-middle-class existence. Rose, once a popular high school cheerleader, works as a cleaning lady, and Norah can’t hold down a waitress job. Eventually, they learn of a more lucrative niche within the cleaning industry: post-mortem cleanup. The sisters start their business, learn the ropes, and metaphorically attempt to scrub clean their own traumatic experience: the tragic death of their mother.

The lead actresses would be worth watching in any project no matter its nature, but they seem particularly at home here. Ms. Holley has written two complex, truthful characters in Rose and Norah. They are strong, proud and vulnerable; in short, convincingly real. With consistent subtlety Mses. Adams and Blunt convey a range of emotions, from deep, paralytic pain and disappointment to joyful affection.

To understand the women, one need only observe Ms. Adams’s big, misting eyes as she offers to sit with the wife of a suicide victim, and the hesitant determination Ms. Blunt brings to her character’s quest to help the daughter of a recently deceased woman find some emotional peace. They are people driven, above all, by the need to help others. Their cleaning service exists because of the powerful shared desire – however awkwardly expressed – to positively impact the world around them as a mother should for her child and as their mother never could for them.

Rather than following a tight dramatic arc, the picture is propelled forward by the accumulated effect of the various small ways the cleaning service affects both women. The film has some off-kilter humor – Mr. Arkin can always be depended upon for some cranky old man laughs – but its heart lies in the hopeful story of two kind people learning to love and care about themselves and meaningfully realize their mothering instincts. Casting actors as sympathetic as Mses. Adams and Blunt in those parts – masters at making the deepest internal emotions viscerally felt – is the sort of coup with which movie magic is made.


Opens on March 13 in Manhattan.

Directed by Christine Jeffs; written by Megan Holley; director of photography, John Toon; edited by Heather Persons; production designer, Joseph T. Garrity; produced by Glenn Williamson, Jeb Brody, Marc Turtletaub and Peter Saraf; released by Overture Films. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Amy Adams (Rose Lorkowski), Emily Blunt (Norah Lorkowski), Alan Arkin (Joe Lorkowski), Jason Spevack (Oscar Lorkowski) and Steve Zahn (Mac).


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