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Review: 'Sunshine Cleaning' agreeably tidy

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  • Tom Charity: Up-and-coming stars, optimistic message buoy "Sunshine Cleaning"
  • Two struggling sisters become a crime-scene cleanup crew
  • Movie presents feelings in neat-and-tidy packages, reviewer says
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By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- More timely now than when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2008, "Sunshine Cleaning," an agreeable, midrange independent film, makes light work of heavy burdens.

Amy Adams gets to work cleaning up as Rose in the indie comedy "Sunshine Cleaning."

Amy Adams gets to work cleaning up as Rose in the indie comedy "Sunshine Cleaning."

Sisters Rose (Amy Adams) and Norah (Emily Blunt) struggle with menial jobs and periods of unemployment. Together, they're also coping with the nasty emotional residue of their mom's long-ago suicide -- a trauma that is likely responsible for their current troubles. Self-esteem isn't a strong suit for either of them.

As "Sunshine Cleaning" dawns, they're both scraping by. If Norah is out of work before we've settled into our popcorn, she's not overly concerned by her situation. Rose, on the other hand, is desperate to graduate from cleaning other people's middle-class homes. It's not just that the humiliation of laundering for her old cheerleader team is getting her down; she needs the money to put her "difficult" kid (Jason Spevack) into the kind of school that will give him a chance.

It's Rose's married boyfriend -- and old high school sweetheart -- Mac (Steve Zahn) who spies a new niche for the sisters. A homicide detective, he's watching the cleaning crew bag the blown brains of a shotgun enthusiast when he overhears the proprietor of the building grousing about the "three grand" it's costing him. Granted, blood and intestinal juices aren't everybody's cup of tea, but that kind of return sure beats washing Mrs. Johansson's drapes for $30 an hour.

"CSM: Crime Scene Maid" isn't a job you're likely to find down at the employment office, but somebody must be doing the dirty work. Rose and Norah -- incorporated -- find that the stench takes some getting used to, and there's a whole new arsenal of cleaning fluids to master, but they get to work with a positive attitude and like to think they're doing their bit to put the world right.

From this unusual setup, the movie might have skewed in any number of ways. The sisters might have uncovered evidence of corruption and murder, for instance, perhaps implicating Mac?

"Sunshine Cleaning" is nowhere near so abrasive or generic as such a scenario. Written by Megan Holley and directed by Christine Jeffs ("Sylvia"), it instead puts a sympathetic, gentle comic gloss on the characters' fundamentally forgivable foibles and imperfections.

Norah tracks down the daughter of one suicide (Mary Lynn Rajskub) to present her with mementos that should have been destined for the junkyard.

Blunt's edgy performance keeps us guessing. Norah's a bit of a flake, but she's animated by her anger and her rebellious streak. If she's hard to read, it's because she's still young and doesn't know herself yet.

Rose is easier to understand. She's determined to seize this chance to dig herself out of the hole and recapture the promise she used to see in herself. Adams has a knack for putting a brave face on things -- something about the way she tilts her chin up while her mouth goes in three directions at once. She keeps our rooting interest in Rose alive even when her choices seem misguided or naive.

A subplot concerning Rose's son bonding with Joe (Alan Arkin), the sisters' lovable but infuriating father (you know the kind: He buys bulk orders of shrimp off the back of a truck) tips us too far into the realm of indie quirk. The character is a useful sounding board, and an amusing grouch, but it's just about impossible to imagine this man bringing up these girls.

Ironically, for a movie that's marketed with the one-liner "Life's a messy business," Holley's script has been polished to within an inch of its life. Emotions are experienced most vividly when they're raw, but in "Sunshine Cleaning," feelings come filtered through neat-and-tidy grace notes. The film flirts with dangerous material, but it's too intent on putting the sunny side up to get its hands dirty. The way director Jeffs tells it, not only is suicide painless it can be positively feel-good.

That's not to say there isn't a lot to enjoy in this well-acted and humanistic comedy. Buoyed by its up-and-coming stars and its optimistic message, it should do very nicely with discriminating audiences. ... It might even clean up.

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