The sweet little dramedy Sunshine Cleaning is probably doomed to endless Little Miss Sunshine comparisons, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Both movies have roughly the same amount of indie quirk, both aim for the same modest level of human drama, and both feature Alan Arkin as the loving, crass grandfather to a weird but awesome kid.
That's largely where the similarities end, however, because this movie isn't about beauty pageants, it's about cleaning up blood. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The kid in question belongs to the main character, Rose (played by the skillful Amy Adams, who carries things like a pro without venturing into Best Actress Diva-land). Rose was hot stuff in high school, but these days she supports her eight-year-old son, Oscar, cleaning rich people's McMansions for a Molly Maid type service, with babysitting help from her dad (Arkin), and her sister, Norah (another solid performance by Emily Blunt). Rose's baby-daddy is nowhere to be seen, and she's presently having an affair with her ex-boyfriend from high school, former star quarterback-turned-police officer Mac (Steve Zahn), who's since married someone else, and goes home to a white-picket-fence family life every night. Rose, however, is poor, and meets Mac in motel rooms during the hours she claims are devoted to real estate classes. Meanwhile, Oscar is bright but hyperactive, and gets into lots of trouble at school; dad is into fly-by-night business schemes, wheeling and dealing to retailers with shady overstock food items like no-name caramel corn and off-market shrimp; and Norah is just generally troubled -- in that studded bracelet, adventurously-dyed-hair kind of way.
That trouble (and maybe all trouble in the story, really) stems from the death of their mom when she and Rose were kids. That's not a particularly wild premise for the emotional content of the story, but it doesn't have to be -- because the rest of the plot's Mad Libs are filled in so weirdly. On a tip from Mac, Rose learns that there's a good buck in postmortem cleanup, so she drags Norah along on a hackneyed job mopping up after a domestic shooting/finger loss. That job leads to another, and after a reasonably placed montage, we see that Rose has gotten pretty good at this, handling gory stuff that few could stomach, and playing a strange but important role in helping people when things are at their worst.
It's a solid depiction of a relatable story, and it's absolutely modest about all of it, especially stylistically, where things stay remarkably reeled in (no super precious, Sundance favorite, Casio-core soundtrack here). And dramatically, there are no signs of the filmmakers overreaching in either direction -- not toward the indie side, with all that contrived über-awkwardness, or toward the movie-magic side, where rehashed storylines are treated like profound revelations. It's just a compelling, well-told story about stuff that everybody can relate to. Namely, there's an ongoing theme about death. But not in a creepy way, in a sympathetic way, pointing out how death is kind of a contradictory thing in people's minds, considering how totally universal it is. On the one hand, it's all ephemeral and airy-fairy: people who have died seem impossible to know; notions of heaven never seem to solidify. But on the other, death is as base and as gritty as it gets: there's the mess, there's the smell, and it happens to absolutely everybody. It might come in second place going up against Little Miss Sunshine toe-to-toe, but Sunshine Cleaning deserves a chance to be enjoyed on its own. And even if it can't, that's not so bad. Who doesn't love Alan Arkin as a trash-talking grandpa?