Amy Adams as Rose Lorkowski
Emily Blunt as Norah Lorkowski
Alan Arkin as Joe Lorkowski
Jason Spevack as Oscar Lorkowski
Steve Zahn as Mac
Mary Lynn Rajskub as Lynn
Clifton Collins, Jr. as Winston
Eric Christian Olsen as Randy
Paul Dooley as Sherm
Kevin Chapman as Carl
Judith Jones as Paula Datzman-Mead
Amy Redford as Heather
The standard thinking on Hollywood from the outside, or at least from the Independent Spirit Award side (which isn't really that out), is that it is obsessed with plot above all else, resulting in excruciating dialogue that's not much more than a recitation of important plot points and clichéd cookie-cutter characterization that tends to be targeted at adolescent males above all else. And they're probably not far wrong on that.
The response is usually to go as far in the opposite direction as possible, with character dramas (though the word drama might not be wholly accurate) that has only a passing familiarity with plot. See any Vincent Gallo film ever made for examples of this. Though to be fair that kind of filmmaking doesn't cost much either. But that's the same logic that brings us "Celebrity Circus" and "The Surreal Life," so maybe fairness isn't really called on.
The idea seems to be to weed out the gimmicks of entertainment to get at the heart of real storytelling, but going too far in either direction isn't going to achieve that. Christine Jeff's' "Sunshine Cleaning" isn't really one of those films but it does have such a leisurely relationship with its story it's never able to take enough advantage of what is a pretty good idea for story.
Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) is your typical struggling single mother. Once the popular head cheerleader dating the captain of the football team (who says independent film eschews clichés), now she works for a cleaning company trying to raise her son (Jason Spevack) alone. When it becomes clear Oscar is going to need expensive private schooling, she uses her old boyfriend (Steve Zahn), now a homicide detective, with whom she's carrying on a messy affair, to break into the lucrative world of crime scene cleaning.
The standard character situations aside--Rose starts to get motivated first after meeting an old classmate who has made the success of herself she was never able to--there's actually a lot to like about "Sunshine Cleaning." Its character interactions are human and subtle in a way a lot of films either don't or can't attempt, like Rose's growing friendship with the one-armed cleaning supply store owner (Clifton Collins, Jr.). And despite being very laid back about its plot, it's not completely uninterested in it. It's a little quirky but not too much, though what quirkiness it does have is a little forced.
But it doesn't have any real cleverness, and it can't entirely shake free of the independent film cliché monster, mostly embodied by Rose's sister Norah (Emily Blunt). She's one of those disaffected too-cool-for-school types who isn't sure if she disdains everyone around her or envies them, mostly because she's still dealing with an old trauma from her childhood. She's more than a little off-putting because she's the kind of gimmick movies like "Sunshine Cleaning" pretend their above. It's especially noticeable because she's the only person who engages in any of the angst or teeth gnashing that the rest of the characters avoid. Though it does lead to probably the most visually arresting scenes in the film, as Norah hangs under a trestle as sparks thrown off by a passing train fall around her. None of it's really Blunt's fault, it's just that she's not playing a real person, she's playing a character from other movies.
In fact, most of the best scenes in the film are between Rose and Norah because Blunt and Adams have great natural chemistry together. I can't help but feel that a movie more about the two of them dealing with their crime scene cleaning business (rather than their own personal dramas) would have been a lot more engrossing. Adams, who is coming close to being typecast as 'the perky actress,' stretches herself a little bit with Rose, but not a lot. She's a good actress and naturally interesting but she's starting to develop a safe zone, intentionally or not. Still, it's the right note for "Sunshine Cleaning" and it really does keep the film from dwelling in angst that a less sure director would have gone for.
Ultimately though, it's a lot of good pieces that don't really fit together. It's badly paced, with a beginning that takes too long to get to the point and ending right out of the indie film playbook (which states, among other things, that one of the main characters must go on a cross country road trip to 'find themselves' by the end of the film). In fact it comes to a head so suddenly, and its conclusion is so pat, I wondered where the film I'd just be watching got off to.
"Sunshine Cleaning" is a decent film, especially if you already like this sort of thing, with a lot of subtle and a desire to represent actual human beings without demonizing or beatifying any of them. But it's a little haphazardly put together and the clichés of the genre ultimately hold it back. On the other hand, if you haven't seen too many of these kinds of movies, it could be just the one to show you what you've been missing out on.