I stared at a blank screen for a long time before I started typing this review, mainly because it was hard to think of how much I could possibly say about Sunshine Cleaning that would make it sound any different from or more substantial than the hundreds of other quirky American indie dramatic comedies and comedic dramas that clog the festival circuit each year. And it’s true this sounds deadly precious on paper. It’s the story of a single mom, dreams dashed, who’s having a tough time making ends meet while taking care of her impulsive, socially awkward son and keeping tabs on her lovably dotty father. She eventually pools resources with her sister to start a business dealing in death, which leads to a whole new perspective on life. It all sounds pretty banal. And then I had a realization: It’s the performances, dummy.
When I was a kid growing up in Southern Colorado, my grandfather had one of those black-and-white TV sets with a screen a few inches across that sat in a box a little bit smaller than a tower PC case. He kept it near his regular chair at the kitchen table, where he smoked cigarettes and worked crossword puzzles. I can’t remember exactly how, but I discovered that under certain conditions you could use that set — and no other TV in the house — to tune in the independent channel 2, broadcasting out of that metropolis 120 miles to the north, Denver. And if you tuned in weekdays at 5 p.m. and squinted through the snow, and were willing to sit there at the kitchen table staring at a tiny, black-and-white screen, you could see the Adventures of Superman series in syndicated reruns. It seemed like it was worth going through just about any inconvenience to see Adventures of Superman.