"Sunshine Cleaning", the new film from Christine Jeffs ("Sylvia" starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig) is an enjoyable diversion. It has all the hallmarks of a breakout independent film, off-center wacky characters, unusual story line, slice of life dramatic situations. It has the early box office of other breakout hits. But it also feels a little too calculated, a little too engineered to make it a "truly memorable experience", to help it rise to the levels of other genuine hits like "Little Miss Sunshine" or "Broken Flowers".
Rose (Amy Adams) cleans houses for a living in Albuquerque. The single mother of Oscar (Jason Spevack), she has to start earning more money, to send him to a private school as he has been kicked out of every public elementary school for behavior problems. Her boyfriend, Mac (Steve Zahn), a married cop who is having an affair with her, tells her about a crime scene cleaning service he saw during one of his calls. He starts throwing business to her and she enlists the aid of her sister, Norah (Emily Blunt, "The Devil Wears Prada") who can’t hold a job and seems reluctant to get involved. Their dad, Joe (Alan Arkin) is happy to watch Oscar while they are out working and takes him along as he tries various sales schemes, to keep trying to make money. As the two sisters get more and more involved in the business, Rose becomes friends with Winston (Clifton Collins, Jr., "Capote"), the one armed man who runs the supply shop they use for supplies. At one crime scene, Norah comes across photos of a young lady at the home of a deceased old woman. She decides to track her down and tell the woman about her mom's death. When she meets Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub, TV's "24"), she lies and they become friends.
The best things about "Sunshine Cleaning", what sets it above most other films, are the performances by the two lead actresses, Amy Adams and Emily Blunt. They are both very good and give us a little window into the lives of these two people.
Amy Adams has such an undeniable charm and skill it is easy to see why she makes all of the characters she has played seem so real, so effortless. She first gained attention as the pregnant stepsister in "Junebug", a very independent slice of life comedy about a young man who returns home to his roots with his fiancée who must deal with the culture shock when he runs away to deal with work, leaving her abandoned. "Enchanted", "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day", "Doubt" and many others show the diverse range of this actress.
Adams plays Rose, the older daughter of a man who has tried his best to raise his two daughters. But because their mother left the picture very early, the two sisters have had to deal with a lot and Rose lost a lot of her childhood caring for her more impetuous sister, Norah. Now that she is an adult, she has to care for her son, Oskar, and cleans houses to provide for him. But Rose isn't perfect and carries on an affair with her high school sweetheart, Mac, hoping for the day he will leave his wife and return to her.
One day, as Rose is cleaning the house of a new client, she meets the owner, a former high school girlfriend who is living a lot better than she is, pregnant again. The woman invites Rose to the baby shower and this prompts her, pushes her closer to making the decision to move into her new business. But she realizes she will need help and turns to her sister.
As Rose and Norah begin the new business, they learn by trial, making mistakes, finding out rules and regulations as they go. And Winston recognizes this, giving them some literature and guidance to help them along.
As we get to know Rose, it appears that she is very level headed, calm, the one who makes the right decisions. So it is a little shocking, but also a little refreshing to see her carry on an affair with Mac. Even though he is always trying to do good, watching her carry on the affair shows she makes mistakes. It makes her appear all the more human and even more interesting. Later, we learn a little more about their history and their relationship becomes ever more poignant and sad. It is a nice, interesting and very touching performance from Adams.
Emily Blunt plays Norah, who still lives at home with her father and can't seem to hold down a job. But she is always available to watch Oskar, who she adores.
When Rose asks her to help out with the business, she tries hard to avoid it, but can't. She isn't working and can use the money. Initially, it is as difficult for her to face some of the things they have to clean up, as it is difficult for her to simply work hard. It's difficult for both of them. But Rose puts on a professional face and charges forward into the business. Because Norah has less as stake, she rebels more. But does she have less at stake? You can see Blunt infuse the character with doubt and maybe even a little self-loathing. Is she going to live with her dad forever? Will she be able to ever hold down a job?
When she meets Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), their relationship goes down some interesting roads and gives us a more full picture of Norah. She is a confused woman who needs to make some decisions.
But the film is ultimately a little too calculated. It is produced by the same people involved in "Little Miss Sunshine" and it definitely feels like they are trying to incorporate a formula into the mix here. The wacky grandfather (interestingly, played by Alan Arkin in both films) is a bit off center and tries wacky things. In "Little Miss", he was not adverse to buying porn and talking about masturbation. In "Sunshine", he tries a couple of get rich quick schemes, including trying to sell gourmet popcorn to candy shops and shrimp "that fell off a truck" to a Mexican restaurant he frequents. And he even has a couple of dramatic moments, but these almost feel scheduled somehow. Okay, in "Little Miss", we got teary eyed at 56 minutes. So we better have a similar moment in "Sunshine". It seems like the filmmakers are trying to hit certain points, include certain emotions and funny bits that have helped successful independent films in the past. If they helped other films, they should help this one, right?
Both films have a precocious young kid in the mix. At least in "Sunshine", they changed the gender. Rose's little boy Oskar gets into a lot of trouble at school and Rose will do nothing but support him, so she yanks him out of one class after another. And he loves spending time with his grandfather, helping him in his schemes. He's a cute kid. And his relationship with his relationship with grandpa is cute. But this worked so much better in "Little Miss Sunshine". Remember?
Clifton Collins Jr. and Steve Zahn add a nice balance to the cast, making their few scenes memorable and rounding out the quirkiness level.
"Sunshine Cleaning" is an enjoyable diversion. And many people are going to the film, in all likelihood for the very reasons I have listed above. It is an awfully familiar 'feel good' film. People will laugh. Some may even cry. Most will leave the theater enjoying the experience. But I doubt most will remember the film because it will quickly fade away into the subconscious, confused with other similar films. Until it is forgotten.
Personally, when I go to an independent film, I want a little more bite. I want to feel like I have just seen something no studio would ever make. I want to be surprised, challenged, moved. Why do I look for these things in independent films? Because the majority of studio fare is produced for a mass audience, a mass audience of teenaged boys. When an independent film begins to closely resemble many of the most popular independent films they become less interesting, less surprising, less challenging. And you have to ask yourself. Why bother?