At the end of Sunshine Cleaning, after all of the brain and blood has been wiped up, the reasons for the heroines’ neuroses elucidated, and their futures left open-ended, Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” takes us to the credits. This overused staple of countless shows, commercials, and movies always connotes one of two things: “here comes the bad boy” or “there go our loveable characters, moving free and easy down the road with newfound perspective.” It’s the latter in Sunshine Cleaning, a charmingly performed but phony repetition of self-involved mantras that go something like, “We’re imperfect, not always happy, maybe even a little fucked up . . . but you know what? We’re gonna be okay.”
It’s not just the title that aligns Christine Jeffs’s movie with that other can of morbid Sundance corn, Little Miss Sunshine. The films share producers, a production company, a New Mexico setting, and a patriarchal wiseacre played by Alan Arkin. It’s possible that the movies’ two families actually do co-exist, and producers Peter Saraf and Marc Turtletaub are building up some kind of Salingerian universe. More significantly, Megan Holley, like Michael Arndt when he wrote Little Miss Sunshine, is a first-time screenwriter prone to a kind of patronizing, mechanical tidiness that cranks the story along with an almost too perfectly balanced blend of lightness and pathos. This screenplay-as-cake-recipe method, in which every pinch of any one quality has to be mathematically precise, ends up dulling the taste of the final product.