Thursday, August 27, 2009

How Do You Clean Sunshine?

We watched Sunshine Cleaning the other night, and I must say that it is a truly, truly interesting story that crumbles under poor writing and direction.

Amy Adams stars as Rose, a thirty-ish single mother of an 8-year-old, Oscar, with peculiar disciplinary problems. Her younger sister, Norah, is chronically unemployed, and her father is a widower who strings together get-rich-quick scheme after get-rich-quick scheme, none of which ever seem to pan out. Rose is scraping by as a maid and the high point of her week seems to be her "classes", that is, encounters with her married ex-boyfriend Mac. When Oscar gets kicked out of public school... again... this time for licking a teacher, Rose decides to go into the more lucrative business cleaning up bio-hazardous materials (read as: blood and such) from crime scenes, and drags her sister Norah along for the ride.

If this isn't a treatment for a black comedy, I don't know what is. Unfortunately, Sunshine Cleaning has decided to take itself seriously and it falls very flat in spite of some spirited performances and premise with real promise. This is not a review. I hated it. There. There's your review. Instead, I think Sunshine Cleaning is an excellent tutorial in how to not tell a story. In your storytelling, avoid the following pitfalls:

Also, spoilers ahead.

Unclear Progression of Plot

Let me introduce you to a little friend I call The 3-Act Formula. Act I - set up initial conflict. Act II - conflict gets worse, often with a dramatic twist. Act III - Conflict is resolved. It's formulaic, yes, but it works, and unless you have something better to replace it with, you need to use it (the only movie I can think of that really abandons this formula is Garden State, which is imminently enjoyable, but not because of its plot).

SC has no over-arching story. Conflicts arise and are dealt with, and then we wait for the next conflict to arise without any idea what it may be. Subplots are introduced and abandoned, or drag on without the characters showing any real change. Rose isn't shown getting better at her job, her quality of life doesn't improve. At one point she cuts off the affair with her ex, but that's it. The only difference between end-of-the-film Rose and start-of-the-film Rose is that she has successfully started a new business.

They needed to develop some of the minor subplots into actual story-advancing subplots. Rose and Norah are amateurs and they get called out for it. That conflict is resolved in the beginning (or so) of Act II. They lose their business because of a fire and a lack of insurance--but there's no mention of the lack of insurance. Norah collects things from a few of the houses they clean--things she was supposed to have thrown away. This is used to introduce a potential romantic interest, but as soon as the ugly truth comes out, the romantic relationship is over, end of story. Any of these things could have been turned into real subplots.

Unclear Progression of Time

Audiences need to know what's going on. How long have Rose and Norah been doing this? Have they had time to believably cultivate their business and relationships? What felt like a very long time of career development all seemed to occur between the time Rose meets a very pregnant woman and when that woman has a baby shower. It's confusing, and therefore it is also distracting.

Why not use the baby shower as a deadline. When Rose meets her pregnant friend, she gives the impression that her life is all put-together. One line of dialog would have done wonders. Ready for it? Here it is: "That baby shower is in two months, and if my life is still in shambles, I just won't be able to show my face there and embarrass myself in front of all of my old high school friends." Or some such. Couple that with a shot of a calendar during a montage and you've got it fixed.

Awkward Silences

Silence can be powerful, but more silence doesn't mean more powerful. Use dialog. Also, use music.

Confusing "Off-Beat" for "Humorous"

I get the distinct impression that Rose's father and his failed get-rich-quick schemes were supposed to serve as comic relief, but they were too weird to be funny, and in an otherwise dramatic movie, they stuck out awkwardly (dark humor is great, but it needs some light humor for balance, ya?). Some genuine comedy from time to time might have lightened the tone of the overall film, making the dramatic bits seem genuinely dramatic, and making the characters seem more endearing.

Not Knowing What The Scene Is About

At Rose and Norah's first job, they are unprepared for the situation but muscle through anyway on sheer chutzpah. We see them struggle, but we don't get to see the chutzpah. Rose never stands up for herself and says "we're professionals, we can do this", despite showing up without biohazard protection or adequate cleaners. She wreaks of amateurism but never stands up for herself.

The worst offender, though, was the "trestling" scene. Norah takes her romantic interest down to a railroad bridge, has a conversation about her mother's death, and then climbs up the bridge to "trestle", that is, to sit under the tracks as the train passes overhead, bathing in the sparks and hanging on despite the violent shaking. This action is intercut with flashback scenes--she's remembering her mother's death--remembering, not confronting. Then they go to a coffee shop, Norah makes a confession to this romantic interest that dissolves their relationship. No no no.

First off, the scene should not be about Norah's mother. It's an info-dump disguised as plot. The scene is about Norah sharing an intimate moment with an acquaintance and then, when she opens up, losing that acquaintance. But Norah and her friend converse in wide steady-cam one-shots that convey awkwardness and conflict and tension. Why not, instead, do a tight two-shot of the conversation with interspersed close-up coverage, something that implies that for this moment they are sharing the same space. Then, when Norah climbs up alone, this foreshadows the pending end of the relationship, and when she "trestles", lose the intercutting. We don't need to know exactly how her mother died. Let the conflict remain implicit.

Plot Devices That Don't Make Sense

When Rose arrives at the baby shower, she parks behind a Porsche. This is all well and good, but wealthy mothers and mothers-to-be don't drive sports coupes. Oscar's father is never mentioned. Why isn't she receiving child-support payments? Why isn't he involved in schooling decisions? Also, public schools don't kick kids out for licking the teacher--they send them to a school for troubled children. Also, a man can't sell his house and buy a custom-painted van without his daughter noticing, especially if she lives in the same city and counts on him to babysit. Do some research. Test plot devices to make sure they work. RTFM!


What's really funny about all this is something Abby pointed out--a lot of these problems could have been solved with some voice-over. Amy Adams describes what's going on in a scene. She points out that the wealthy wives of New Mexico drive sports cars, and then it becomes a joke, not a poorly chosen plot device that can be seen, in some lights, as humorous, if you're willing to disregard its incongruous nature. This also might have dealt with some of the awkward silences and overall heavy tone.

I could go on and on, but I think I've made enough of a point. Don't watch Sunshine Cleaning if you expect to be entertained. Watch it because it should serve as an example to others.


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