On the Aisle
by Tony Macklin
Independent films are the stepchildren of cinema. They often lack the sustenance of normality. They are hit-or-miss offspring.
Because they are outside the immediate family of Hollywood, they lack conventional discipline. But they also are free to be more personal and genuine than the norm. Or more self-indulgent.
Occasionally a small movie transcends the traps and pitfalls of independence and reaches a sizable welcoming audience. A few, such as “Little Miss Sunshine,” prevail.
I know independent filmmaking is hard because I sometimes get screeners and communication from their creators. Some of their films are inchoate; some are worthy.
“Sunshine Cleaning” is worthy — very worthy. It received a positive reception at the Sundance Film Festival. It is a movie that transcends the obstacles of its genre to sporadically soar to welcome heights. It is characterized by strong direction, skillful editing and an ensemble cast that will be among the best of the year.
The movie’s best asset is the talented Amy Adams. She was nominated for an Oscar for “Doubt;” she will eventually win an Oscar. She is a many-faceted gem. Staring, frowning, pondering, smiling, sobbing, Adams is an expressive actress who can register a wealth of emotions.
In “Sunshine Cleaning,” Adams portrays Rose Lorkowski, a dimming bright light, living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Rose is a 35-year old unwed, single mom, who lives with her 7-year old son, and struggles to stay afloat with a house cleaning job. She fitfully tries to keep alive her dwindling hopes of a better future.
Rose has a sex-in-a-motel relationship with her high school sweetheart Mac (Steve Zahn). She was the head cheerleader, and he was the quarterback. But he is married to someone else.
Her son Oscar (Jason Spevack) is a smart child who has problems concentrating in school. He’s curious, but disconnected.
Rose’s erratic, younger sister Norah (Emily Blunt) has been even more effected than Rose by the suicide of their mother when they were children. Norah lives with their father Joe (Alan Arkin), who is still unsuccessfully trying to hit some get-rich scheme. He has had several.
Rose convinces Norah to join her in a new venture, cleaning up after violent death. They become a biohazard clean-up service that Rose names Sunshine Cleaning.
Naive and inexperienced, the sisters evolve professionally and personally. Through trial and error, they move forward.
The screenplay by Megan Holley has its soft spots, but it gives its cast much with which to work.
One scene that could be contrived, but instead is wonderful, is when Rose visits a baby shower with former high school females who now are living in a world of shallow affluence.
What makes the scene memorable is that Amy Adams is absolutely luminous as she explains—and understands as she is explaining—to her former schoolmates how much she loves her new venture. Adams makes it a great scene.
There are other memorable sequences: Norah “restling” at night, standing high on a trestle as train roars just above her as she screams; Norah going through a metal box of memorabilia of her mother; Winston, a clerk at a cleaning products store relating quietly to Rose and her son.
Clifton Collins, Jr., who played Perry Smith in “Capote” (2005) is effectively subtle as the one-armed clerk. He could be one-dimensional as well as one-armed, but Collins beautifully humanizes the character. He is an actor to watch.
Arkin has patented kindly, aging, eccentricity, a quality he espoused in “Little Miss Sunshine” and for which he won an Oscar. He retreads it winningly here. Blunt has edgy presence as Norah.
Paul Dooley, who appeared as a cutter in “Breaking Away” (1979), has a brief role, but much of the cutter seems to have wound up on the cutting room floor. Too bad.
One sign that “Sunshine Cleaning” is an indie film is that in the credits it lists more drivers that I have ever seen. Albuquerque roads must have been full.
One of the best qualities of “Sunshine Cleaning” is the editing. Director Christine Jeffs (Sylvia, 2003) and editor Heather Persons keep scenes from bogging down by deftly cutting them and keeping them from going on too long and diminishing their impact. This renders a discipline that limits any self-indulgence
“Sunshine Cleaning” doesn’t have a neat resolution, not a crowd-pleasing one like “Little Miss Sunshine,” but it’s a good resolution. “Sunshine Cleaning” is an engaging indie film. It scrubs and bubbles.