Independent movies are touted as the risky alternative to test-marketed Hollywood fare, so it’s dispiriting to see one that doesn’t take a single risk. Brought to us by the producers of surprise hit Little Miss Sunshine, Sunshine Cleaning is conceived with so little imagination that it feels like the product of a Screenwriting 101 course.
It’s also a waste of two likable young actresses. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt both have big round eyes (one pair blue, the other green) that can express a world of hurt. That’s their only real similarity, but here they play sisters whose characters have been conceived in the simplest possible terms: One is a miserable drudge, the other an unapologetic screwup. (For all-too-similar sibling pairs, check out last year’s The Savages and Smart People.)
Adams plays the drudge, Rose Lorkowski, an Albuquerque single mom who cleans yuppies’ houses to make ends meet. A one-time high school cheerleader, she’s still hooking up with her quarterback boyfriend — only now he’s married to someone else. Rose finally snaps when her freckly tyke of a son (Jason Spevack) is hauled into the principal’s office for licking things at school, including one of his teachers.
In the real world, this behavior might occasion a serious talk between parent and child. But, because Rose lives in Quirky-Indie Land, she doesn’t bother to interrogate little Oscar. (If she did, she might learn that he got the oral fixation from a description of obsessive-compulsive disorder in one of his aunt’s scandalous bedtime stories.) Instead, she simply pulls him out of school, plunks him down at her dad’s house, and resolves to earn enough money to afford a private school where creativity will be fostered and, presumably, teacher-licking will not be frowned on.
Here’s where Sunshine Cleaning becomes a black comedy, or a facsimile of one. Rose’s illicit lover, now in law enforcement, tips her off that she can make a killing by cleaning up crime scenes and other death sites. So she enlists her wastrel sister, Norah, packs up her mops and sprays, and heads for a motel room where there’s a freshly blood-stained shower stall.
Don’t you need a license for that? And special disinfectants? Is it really legal to toss bio-waste in the dumpster? The viewer is likely to be mulling over such questions long before they occur to Rose. The profession of cleaning up after death would be a fascinating subject for a documentary or a gritty drama, but that’s not how screenwriter Megan Holley and director Christine Jeffs use it. Instead, they gloss over the details of the sisters’ dirty job and make it a metaphor of sorts. When we learn that Rose and Norah lost their mother at an early age, it’s pretty clear where all this is heading: toward catharsis. At one point, Adams delivers a moving monologue in which Rose defends her choice of work, saying, “We come into people’s lives … and we help.” But we see the sisters “help” a survivor in exactly one scene. The rest of the time, they’re interacting with filthy, deserted living spaces. If they’re helping anyone process grief, it’s themselves.
That’s a workable setup, but the filmmakers lard it with clichés from the ample stables of family dramas and MFA-workshop short stories. When Rose’s kid is shown a CB radio that sends messages “into the heavens,” you just know he’s going to use it to try to communicate with his grandma in heaven — and he does. When Rose leaves him with her lovable kook of a dad — Alan Arkin, way too close to his character in Little Miss Sunshine — you know the two are going to bond, and they do. The only unpredictable plot thread, involving Norah’s friendship with a nurse played by Mary Lynn Rajskub of TV’s “24,” doesn’t go much of anywhere.
It doesn’t help that Jeffs tends to keep the focus and the action on one side of the frame, as if she’s anticipating the moment when the movie will be panned and scanned for its natural habitat, the small screen. As a film you might stumble across on cable, Sunshine Cleaning is passable. But a ray of light it’s not.