Despite its title and the prominent presence of Alan Arkin as an eccentric grandpa and the patriarch of a quirky family of dreamers and schemers, Sunshine Cleaning is not a sequel to Little Miss Sunshine, though given its grim subject matter, the film’s makers probably wouldn’t mind it being mistaken for one. Instead it’s a prototypical indie comedy-drama about misfits struggling to get by on the fringes of society.
The delightful Amy Adams stars as a single mother whose life peaked with being a popular cheerleader and dating the star quarterback in high school. As the film opens, she’s still sleeping with her high school boyfriend (Steve Zahn), even though he went on to marry another woman. Adams scrapes by as a cleaning woman until Zahn, now a cop, clues her into the lucrative world of cleaning up bloody crime scenes. Adams throws herself into the work and a burgeoning career as an entrepreneur, but her loyalty to screw-up sister/employee Emily Blunt threatens the health and future of her growing small business.
Sunshine Cleaning embodies a curious indie paradox: it’s a non-commercial, deeply personal film that overlaps so extensively with other non-commercial, deeply personal films that it feels strangely generic. Clifton Collins Jr., for example, plays a sad-eyed, one-armed model-building clerk who forms an unlikely bond with Adams’ spooky, precocious son. Though well-acted, Collins Jr.’s character nevertheless feels like a random assemblage of Sundance quirks. Even the ostensibly novel cleaning-up-after-the-dead angle feels familiar after Pulp Fiction,the forgotten Quentin Tarantino-produced indie Curdled, the Samuel L. Jackson vehicle Cleaner,and Point Of No Return. The film’s secondhand feel wouldn’t be so problematic if it had a sense of urgency, but director Christine Jeffs’ ambitions begin and end with transferring Megan Holley’s earnest script from the page to the screen. There is a time and a place for scruffy independent also-rans like this, and that time and place is the 2 a.m. slot on IFC.