Sunshine Cleaning

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 03/20/09 10:00:00

"Disappointingly sup-par indie film."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

The word “genre” is often used, over-used, and abused to describe a set of films sharing similar characteristics (e.g., settings, character types, storylines, etc.), but more than that, the word “genre” implies disapproval or even condescension toward the particular film being discussed or reviewed. In fact, every film belongs to a genre or genres (hybrid genres are more than the norm than the exception). Even so-called “indie” films, once lauded for their originality and seriousness, at least in relationship to Hollywood films, are or have become a part of a genre, albeit one with relatively loose characteristics. Exhibit: "Sunshine Cleaning," an “indie” comedy-drama directed by Christine Jeffs ("Sylvia," "Rain") and written by Megan Holley that, outside of two highly watchable performances by the lead actresses, Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, offers nothing new under the (indie) sun.

Sunshine Cleaners centers on two sisters Rose (Amy Adams) and Norah (Emily Blunt) Lorkowski who live in New Mexico . A single mother, Rose barely makes ends meet as a maid for a cleaning service. Rose meets Mac (Steve Zahn), a married police detective she once dated in high school, for occasional trysts at a motel. She refuses the alternative: putting Oscar on medication. Norah works (or rather worked) as a waitress in a local diner. She can barely get up enough energy to get to the diner, let alone perform her duties as a waitress with minimal competency. Not surprisingly, she’s fired after one too many on-the-job screw-ups. Norah also lives with her father, Joe (Alan Arkin), a cranky, cantankerous old man fixated on one failed money-making scheme after another.

Due to his anti-authoritarian streak, Rose’s son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), runs into problems at his elementary school. Rose has two alternatives: medicate Oscar at the behest of the school’s authorities or send him to a private school. Private schools, however, cost money and while Rose dreams of becoming a real estate agent, she can’t afford the real estate course. Mac suggests Rose start up a crime clean-up business, which she does, with Norah’s help. With the help of the owner of a cleaning supply store, Winston (Clifton Collins Jr.), Rose finds modest financial success, but Norah finds it difficult to dissociate herself emotionally from her work. After recovering some pictures from one crime scene, she track’s down the woman’s daughter, Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), and begins a semi-platonic relationship.

Sunshine Cleaning has all the elements of a standard indie comedy-drama: the backward sliding protagonist, a tangled, emotionally draining home life, a casual approach to infidelity, family secrets or other related childhood trauma (did someone say suicide?), emotionally stunted supporting characters, eccentric, misunderstood children, an irascible, colorful senior citizen (Alan Arkin, practically reprising his Oscar-winning curmudgeonly turn from Little Miss Sunshine), emotional confrontations, and an ambiguous ending that leaves several plot threads unresolved (all the better to give Sunshine Cleaning that authentic indie vibe). Unfortunately, Sunshine Cleaning has nothing else to offer audiences eager for an original, cliché-free night at a movie theater that doesn’t involve angst-ridden costumed superheroes or giant robots cutting a path of destruction through a major American city.

Well, that’s not completely correct. "Sunshine Cleaning" does have Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as Rose and Norah Lorkowski. While Adams and Blunt’s roles are underwritten and the arcs of their respective characters painfully predictable (not to mention reductive), Adams and Blunt imbue their characters with the inner lives they otherwise lack. Adams emotes convincingly as the emotionally lost Rose while Blunt matches her emotion for emotion as the emotionally damaged Norah. They both deserved better from Holley’s lackluster screenplay and Jeffs’ uninspired direction. Alan Arkin adds little to "Sunshine Cleaning," both because we’ve already seen him deliver a similar performance in "Little Miss Sunshine" and because Holley’s screenplay offers him little to do as actor or as a screen presence. Likewise with Clifton Collins, Jr., best known for his supporting turn as Perry Smith in "Capote" four years ago. More could (and should) have been done with his character’s relationship with Rose, but like almost everything else in "Sunshine Cleaning" his character ends up as a loose end.

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