There is something disturbing about a film whose characters find fuzzy enlightenment by way of the violent and tragic end of others. Sunshine Cleaning doesn't mean to be mean, but it is. Blame poor film making talent, not cruel intentions. Indeed, if this comedy had had a purposeful black heart at its center in the vein of an In Bruges or The Ice Harvest, then it may have at least felt coherent. Instead, Sunshine Cleaning feels like a cracked shell of an idea (a dysfunctional sibling crime scene clean-up crew) given rise simply because of the indie star power of its cast.
In an accidental way, Sunshine Cleaning's avoidance in addressing the humanity of its characters in the face of shocking death is yet another example of our growing desensitivity to violence. After her first day on the job scrubbing blood-splattered walls in a trashy bathroom, Rose (Amy Adams) excitedly tells her homicide beat boyfriend about the details as they undress for some infidelity intercourse. Sure, Amy Adams looks cute in her undies and Steve Zahn has obviously been keeping in shape, but wouldn't a moment of Rose making sense of her dramatic career shift (she used to clean-up the homes of the living, now she cleans-out the dens of the dead) have been much more prudent?
The absence of those kind of scenes feels stark especially since Sunshine Cleaning so wants to touch on the lifestyle of single-mother-hardtime-survivin'. Rose makes the decision to go grim for the green in order to provide for her son, but the fact that she's a mother never touches her while she's surrounded by so much mortality. In fact, when Rose's sister Norah (Emily Blunt) finds photos of one of the deceased client's daughters, it is she who feels compelled to seek out the young woman and inform her of the mothers demise, not Rose. Rose is still hung up on hiding from the wife of her lover and the status rankings of her High School peer group.
Or is she? That's the problem with Sunshine Cleaning, nothing feels of a whole mind. Nobody is anybody. Every character is a Sundance cliche, quirky enough to get the Indiewire staff text-blogging about it on their iPhones immediately after a screening, but lacking enough depth to survive in the minds of your average serious moviegoer. So, that begs the question: does the festival hype-machine breed this kind of half-assed fare? Yes. Because, forget if this movie is well-made or not, it's got three bankable stars with enough weight to anchor a schmoozy, co-sponsored American Apparel/Facebook party.
Which is fine. I respect the patterns of business, I just resent the mindset that somehow this IFC/Cinematical world is so much more pure or "about the art" than bigtime Hollywood is. They're the same. In clearer terms, Sunshine Cleaning is simply the Sundance equivalent of Bride Wars.