On its surface, Sunshine Cleaning looks familiar. Its plot concerns the relationship between responsible single mother Rose (Amy Adams) and her deadbeat sister Norah (Emily Blunt). Rose struggles to make ends meet as a maid, while Norah parties and drifts from job to job. But things turn tricky when Rose’s detective boyfriend Mack (Steve Zahn), seeing how much a cleaning service charges to clean up bloody crime scenes, suggests she get in on the racket. Rose balks, but when her son Oscar’s (Jason Spevack) behavior problems prompt her to look into private school, she reconsiders, turning to Norah to help her with her new business venture, Sunshine Cleaning.
Unsurprisingly, working together only throws their differences into high relief and sets the sisters on the road to both mutual understanding and self-discovery. We must endure Rose’s cliched reactions to Norah’s many failings (“When are you going to get your shit together?”) and Norah’s inevitable responses (“You don’t have to take care of me anymore”). If Sunshine Cleaning never gets much beyond such superficial treatment of the sisters conflicts, it does at least try to complicate them individually. Good girl Rose lies to her family about taking real estate licensing classes, when in actuality she’s rendezvousing with Mack, who is married; when she starts Sunshine Cleaning, she doesn’t get insurance (with disastrous consequences); and she leaves Oscar with a virtual stranger so she can attend the baby shower of someone she barely knows in order to bolster her reputation.
Rose’s motivation tends to be shallow: she doesn’t want to look like a loser (though she has no qualms about labeling her sister as one). Her most profound realization seems to be that she’s only good at getting guys to “want” her. On the other hand, Norah struggles between trying to anesthetize herself from the childhood trauma of their mother’s suicide and desperately trying to connect to her mother through items that belonged to her: a coin purse, a cigarette butt, and a few other trinkets Norah keeps stashed away. Despite her slacker persona, she is surprisingly introspective and observant, though variably sensitive and scathing. She calls Rose out on her affair, telling her, “You’re pathetic,” though she might also be judged the same.
Sunshine Cleaning will draw comparisons to Little Miss Sunshine, as it’s produced by the same team and promoted as such. The two films are not without similarities (besides the obvious titular connection), like the borderline losers craving connection and some level of personal success. Then there is the grandfather played by Alan Arkin, central to both films. Though less vulgar (and decidedly less humorous) here as Joe, he has the same strongly invested relationship with Oscar as Grandpa Edwin Hoover did with Little Miss Sunshine‘s Olive.
The most significant similarity is both films’ use of an only child as impetus for change and locus of hope for the adult caretakers. It is Rose’s determination to send Oscar to private school that prompts her to start Sunshine Cleaning, and at last admit she never really intended to follow through on the real estate license. Oscar validates Norah’s weirdness and, to some extent, her irresponsibility, since he is charmed by both these qualities in her. For Joe, Oscar is an endless source of affirmation, as he maintains faith in Joe’s promises and his off-the-wall business schemes, though he routinely fails to deliver on both.
All three adults see in Oscar a better version of themselves, even if it is subconscious, and even if they are the only ones to see it. This leaves each of them seeming childlike to some degree. Despite such nuances, we can see from a long way off where Sunshine Cleaning is headed. So, we can rest assured Rose, Norah, and even Joe will find their ways to appropriate adulthood, doing as their Sunshine Cleaning service does — taking all that “stuff” away, and making it better.