Unless Mary Poppins is there as project manager, tidying up life’s spills, stains, and clutter isn’t exactly a fun-filled activity. Picking up after death’s fluid imprints usually isn’t either. It’s dirty and dangerous, but someone’s gotta do it. To paraphrase what Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) tells her former high school classmates at a baby shower three-fourths of the way through Christine Jeffs’s darkish comedy, “Sunshine Cleaning” (2008), Rose and her younger sister Norah (Emily Blunt) enter the lives of people who have just had a profound experience in losing a loved one. Whether it’s self-inflicted or an accident, death leaves behind a mark that can be too much for the grieving to handle. Rose and Norah help lessen the stress and sadness involved in post-mortem sterilizing.
Pretty, perky, and delicate upon first glance, Rose doesn’t seem to be the crime-scene-cleaning type. She might work for a maid service, but dusting window treatments and televisions and removing blood spatter are two very different exercises. Norah, on the other hand, inhabits enough apathy and angst that it would make sense.
So, how is it that the Lorkowski sisters break in to the business of wiping down and disinfecting scenes of death? The primary motivation is that Rose’s seven-year-old son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), is too inquisitive and imaginative for the curriculum and staff at his school, but without the necessary capital, Rose won’t be able to afford to send him to private school. She can’t turn to her dad (Alan Arkin) or Norah — neither of them is financially stable enough to lend any money. Rose finds a solution through her very married lover, Mac (Steve Zahn), who was also her high school sweetheart. He is a detective with the local Albuquerque police department and suggests that she consider the lucrative world of making crime scenes spic-and-span. Rose teams up with her unemployed sister to form their own company.
For plot and character development and to create a sense of verisimilitude, “Sunshine Cleaning” includes scenes and montages on the equipment and paperwork needed to be lawful and efficient cleaners. The Lorkowski sisters master the protocol ropes very quickly from Winston (Clifton Collins Jr.), the owner of the neighborhood industrial cleaning supply store. By the time the film concludes, Rose and Norah have learned much more than the proper way to dispose of bio-hazardous materials and to endure the stench of human decomposition.
Beneath its morbid exterior, “Sunshine Cleaning” projects a tender portrait of how people help out others and seek a better life for themselves. When we first meet Rose, her self-confidence and prospects for a future she can be proud of are next to non-existent. The Lorkowskis are a family of potential waiting for the right moment to strike out into kinetic glory. Seeing them reap the rewards of determination and hard work is deeply fulfilling.