At the State and Quality 16
2.5 out of 5 stars
“Sunshine Cleaning” is the kind of movie that screams “Sundance Film Festival.” With a hipster soundtrack, complicated family relationships and offbeat plot, it’s a film begging to be deemed endearing, screaming “I couldn’t find a distributor, but love me anyway.” “Sunshine Cleaning” technically has all the components that add up to sleeper success, but only because everything in it has been done before in a better film.
That better movie is “Little Miss Sunshine,” 2006’s quirky-little-film-that-could. Similarities between the “Sunshine” flicks are numerous. Both contain a beat-up Volkswagen bus and a precocious youngster who functions as the film’s idealistic voice. But where 2006’s “Little Miss” had heart, this movie has predictability.
It may be oversimplification to pick at the subtle difference in atmosphere between the two films or the differences between the two casts — although Alan Arkin (“Rendition”) plays virtually the same wizened curmudgeon grandfather in both films. But objectively, the casting of the leads makes all the difference.
The movie loses touch with reality when it places unrealistically beautiful women — Emily Blunt (“Charlie Wilson’s War”) and Amy Adams (“Doubt”) — in such desperate states. While it’s unfair to say that beautiful people don’t have problems, the movie gives no reasons behind these women’s situations. It simply offers the audience sad people and asks viewers to feel bad for them.
Set in the dry and appropriately depressing landscape of New Mexico — yes, just like “Little Miss Sunshine” — “Sunshine Cleaning” focuses on two sisters: Rose (Adams) is a single mother stuck in a demeaning job and an affair with her married high school ex-boyfriend (Steve Zahn, “Rescue Dawn”). Younger sister Norah (Blunt) is seemingly stuck in herself. Her thick make-up and dark clothing says “I’m angry,” but her dead eyes say “I’m lost.”
In a bind for financial support, and in search of emotional worth, the sisters open a cleaning service that caters specifically to crime scenes.
Audiences won’t be able to miss the irony of the sisters’ new occupations, because the film won’t let it come gracefully. Indeed, these women can’t pick up their own messes, so they settle for the satisfaction of cleaning the messes of others.
Despite the lack of character development — like the missing background explanation for Rose’s son — Adams and Blunt do an admirable job with their characters. They make convincing sisters, and they are both best when playing off each other.
Alone, however, each struggles to make her character relatable. It’s more a problem of writing than performance, but it’s a weak link nonetheless. Arkin, of course, is lovely as always as the rough-edged-but-softhearted support system. His scenes with Jason Spevack (“Hollywoodland”), who plays Rose’s son Oscar, exemplify the honest love of a patriarch who wants to give his family everything it needs but can’t.
The greatest disappointment of “Sunshine Cleaning” is the ending. Some characters are given uncertain futures and others find their new life handed to them wrapped in a shiny bow. It’s this uncertainty that makes the film seem prepackaged for indie street cred. When it’s all said and done, “Sunshine” is not the universally loved hidden gem of a film it wants to be, but a glossed-over and scrubbed-clean version of what it potentially could have been.