In high school, Rose Lorkowski wasn't just a cheerleader, she was head cheerleader. A redheaded looker, she dated the captain of the football team.
But cheerleading, she observes in a moment of sad self-awareness, is "not as marketable as you think."
The winsome Amy Adams plays Rose, whose moist-eyed disappointment lurks behind every pasted-on smile in Sunshine Cleaning, a forlorn but sweet comedy about clinging to that bottom rung of the economic ladder.
Ten years after graduation, rueful Rose is a maid for Pretty Clean, tidying up other people's messes, occasionally humiliated when she runs into someone who knew her when she ruled the roost in her Albuquerque high school.
Rose leans on her semi-retired salesman/hustler dad (Alan Arkin), looks out for her quirky but troubled sister, Norah (Emily Blunt), and tries to raise the impressionable 7-year-old son she just yanked out of school when educators suggested "medication." She begins each day with an affirmation — "You are strong. You can do anything. You are a winner." But she knows better. She's still seeing Mac, the football player (Steve Zahn). Only now he's a cop — and married to somebody else.
But the one thing Mac can do for her is suggest a change in career — cleaning up crime scenes. It's lucrative, a "racket," he says. Maybe Rose can change her life.
Rose isn't afraid of hard work and has an empathy for everyone. Opportunity comes in the form of cleaning up suicides, accidents and domestic arguments. A cop, funeral home or insurance company calls, and Norah and Rose are off, figuring out this vile business as they go along.
Director Christine Jeffs ( Sylvia) is an odd choice for a dark comedy about finding your place in cleaning up others' blood. She doesn't go for broad laughs or broad strokes. Sunshine Cleaning is as much about Rose and Nora's existential angst as it is about their nasty livelihood.
"We come into people's lives when they've experienced something sad and profound," Rose explains. "We help."
Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada) plays the younger sister as a woman more openly wrestling with the trauma that shaped both their lives. Rose might offer to sit with a woman whose husband killed himself in their bedroom. But it is Norah who picks up personal effects and tracks down a victim's estranged daughter.
It's a film that could do with a few more light moments, and more scenes like the one in which Rose realizes that treating people who suffer bloody, traumatic loss with sympathy is the only decent thing to do.
With Rose's struggles, a one-armed cleaning supply salesman (Clifton Collins), Dad's get-rich-quick schemes and Norah's new "friend" who doesn't know that Norah cleaned up after her dead mom, Jeffs has conjured up a movable feast of melancholia. But the irrepressible Adams puts a sunny face on a life that hasn't worked out, but that's worth the struggle in spite of it all.