Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) is a thirtysomething single mother living in a tiny house in a bland city. By day, she slaves away cleaning other people's bigger and better houses; by night, she carries on an affair with her high school sweetheart (the perpetually underused Steve Zahn) and pines for her dead mother. Her father (Alan Arkin) is a quirky old man with a thousand get-rich-quick schemes; her son (Jason Spevack) is a quirky young man with emotional problems; and her younger sister, Norah (Emily Blunt), is a sarcastic depressive who paints her disaffection in thick black lines under her eyes. Together the sisters try to remedy the financial and emotional paralysis of their lives by starting a company that specializes in crime-scene cleanups, meaning they'll have plenty of opportunities to confront the lingering damage of their own lives while sifting through the emotional detritus of other people's.
Rose Lorkowski, in other words, is the heroine of a Sundance-ready independent movie. Produced by the same team that scored a hit in 2006 with Little Miss Sunshine, Sunshine Cleaning isn't much more than an exercise in style and behavior, a blueprint for young filmmakers hoping to get their dark comedies about working-class despondency into Robert Redford's hands. This is a shame because Adams and Blunt are full of potential as sisters who have never recovered from the traumas of their childhoods and who consistently look for salvation in the wrong places and with the wrong men.
As the more troubled and irresponsible of the two, Blunt, in particular, is a whirlwind. The protective walls she's built for herself - the eye shadow, the ironic sense of humor, the loveless sex - come crumbling down at a moment's notice and often in the company of complete strangers; she may be a loose cannon, but she's only capable of injuring herself. Watching her, I wanted to believe she was going to grant me some insight into the souls of damaged people.
But Sunshine Cleaning doesn't exist in relation to the outside world, only to other movies. Its characters aren't human beings but cultural signifiers and indie-movie stereotypes created to survive in the laboratory safety of the festival circuit but never meant to actually walk the streets or talk to strangers. And Norah, though full of passion and contradiction, is just a conglomeration of tics, gestures and reactions that will be recognizable to anyone who's spent any time watching IFC but irrelevant to anyone interested in the emotional complications of real life.