A missing person, suggestions of crime and down-and-out working poor trailer-park Angelinos struggling to get by — let’s label “The Cleaner” an indie film noir and see if I can make that stick.
This quirky, laid-back and downbeat drama is a star vehicle for King Orba, whose credits cover a wide range of jobs, positions, “additional crew” and the occasional acting job (“The Mighty Orphans,” TV’s “Stargirl”). He co-wrote it with first-time feature director Erin Elder and plays Buck, a broke 50ish house cleaner who lives in an RV next to the trailer housing his retired “piss and vinegar” house cleaner mother (Shelley Long).
Buck’s barely getting by on a good day, pedaling an old beach bike to cleaning jobs from a client list he inherited from his mother Sharon..
It wasn’t always like this, though we get the impression it was never much better. Buck used to sell RVs, like the one he lives in. But something happened.
At least his make-ends-meet struggle leaves him just enough cash to score a little weed from his younger friend, James (James Paxton of TV’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”). James is all about making his own marijuana blends and giving them cute names — “marketing.”
Buck juggles work and keeping an eye on his medicated, beer-loving Mom, and not very successfully. Their new neighbor Becky (Eden Brolin of TV’s “Yellowstone”) might help out. It’s the least she can do after she gets Mom drunk at her trailer-warming party.
Then this new client, Carlene (Lynda Carter, TV’s “Wonder Woman”), an elderly retired singer, springs this on Buck.
“I don’t want you to clean my house, Buck. I want you to find my son.”
Buck, a guy without a car, without a computer, without a cell-phone, is supposed to locate an estranged adult son with “problems,” somebody who doesn’t want to be found in one of the largest cities in the Americas.
Even with a little help from James, who at least knows how to use social media, and Buck’s cop-brother Craig (Faust Checho), Buck is plainly “not qualified” to do this and is out of his depth.
But the singer favors him with a song, and shoves cash in his hand. It’d be rude not to try.
“The Cleaner” is so laid back it’s on the Matthew McConaughey “J.K. Livin'” spectrum.
The dialogue is spare, the “clues” Buck picks up on simple and obvious as he pedals his bike around East L.A., following up, masking his innocuous requests (“You seen this guy?”) behind unnecessary mystery because he’s probably seen the way the gumshoes do it in old movies or “The Rockford Files.”
The screenplay has just enough peripheral complications to keep things interesting. Cop brother Craig is almost estranged from his mother. He tries to bring his fiance (Soleil Moon Frye) to meet her, and that dinner goes from awkward to “trailer trash” ugly in a flash. Neighbor Becky is in an abusive relationship.
The script’s grace notes include a clever way of introducing Craig. Buck comes home to find his mother’s turned her ankle at Becky’s beer bust. He goes to get her pain med prescription filled, learns the medicine isn’t covered by Medicaid and winds up shoplifting batteries for her TV remote. He’s caught.
The cop who picks him up starts in with “Aren’t you ashamed?” Then we find out he’s his brother.
“The Cleaner” is the sort of movie you can make if you spend a lot of time on film sets and are personable enough to start conversations with the stars. Luke Wilson starred in “The Mighty Orphans” with Orb in a supporting role. Hey Luke, wouldya do me a solid?
Wilson, long a champion of indie cinema, signs on for a couple of scenes as a house cleaning client.
Veteran character players M.C. Gainey and Mike Starr join Long and Carter and Moon Frye and Shiloh Fernandez (of “Evil Dead,” playing the missing son here) and Sean Penn and Robin Wright’s son Hopper Penn in a cast whose assembly would be a fun tale to tell, and who ensured “The Cleaner” got financed.
And all that pays off with a quietly-compelling mystery set in a milieu that’s grittier than most of the characters living in it are willing to admit, struggling people who are colorful, believable and (mostly) relatable.
It’s not a polished jewel, but even in the rough “The Cleaner” shines, more proof that you don’t need to limit yourself to horror to get your first film made.
Rating: unrated, violence, drug abuse
Cast: King Orba, Shelley Long, Eden Brolin, Lynda Carter, Soleil Moon Frye, Mike Starr, M.C. Gainey and Luke Wilson.
Credits: Directed by Erin Elders, scripted by Erin Elders and King Obra. A 1091 release.
Running time: 1:33