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Dark side of what matters

IT has become a genre all its own: the dysfunctional family indie comedy, a staple of film festivals and art-house theaters alike.

Done wrong, and these movies can seem too self-consciously quirky. Done right, and you've got a "Little Miss Sunshine" or a "Juno" on your hands.

"Sunshine Cleaning" falls into the latter category - and its producers happen to have been behind "Little Miss Sunshine," as well. Both films share an Albuquerque, New Mexico setting and Alan Arkin as a lovably outspoken father.

But really, that's where the similarities end; despite its perky title, "Sunshine Cleaning" is much darker as it ventures simply and realistically into suicide, adultery and loss.

Amy Adams and Emily Blunt have great chemistry as Rose and Norah Lorkowski, underachieving sisters who stumble into the crime-scene cleanup business. Once a cheerleader at the height of her high-school popularity, 30-something Rose now finds herself a single mom working as a maid, which sometimes requires her to clean her former classmates' McMansions. Younger sister Norah is even more of a screw-up, partying hard, getting fired from waitressing jobs and still living at home with dad (Arkin).

Messy crime

All that changes, somewhat, when Rose's married lover (Steve Zahn), a cop, suggests that she step into the lucrative world of mopping up messy crime scenes. Rose is immediately intrigued by the prospect: she needs the extra money to put her highly imaginative but misunderstood son, Oscar, in a private school. (Young Jason Spevack's performance is blissfully free of precociousness.)

Rose recruits her unemployed sister, but Norah isn't quite so enthusiastic about washing blood from murder scenes and airing out trailers that reek of decomposing corpses - that is, until she finds an unexpected connection with the daughter of one of these victims, played by Mary Lynn Rajskub of "24" in a subplot that feels underdeveloped.

But the overall lack of sentimentality in first-timer Megan Holley's script and straightforward direction from Christine Jeffs keep the film from becoming too predictably feel-good; at the same time, the strong performances help elevate among similar fare.

Adams and Blunt have a subtle and believable sibling dynamic; while Adams has been best known for engaging, energetic roles in films like "Enchanted" and "Doubt," allowing the weightier side of her talent to emerge, the always-alluring Blunt continues to show her versatility.

Arkin is a cantankerous hoot in a role similar to the one that earned him a supporting actor Academy Award for "Little Miss Sunshine." Turns out the business of death forces them all to figure out what really matters in life.


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