The Cleaner

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
The Cleaner Movie Poster Image
Earnest indie drama has some violence, heavy themes.
  • NR
  • 2021
  • 93 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Movie explores themes of enduring in the face of suffering.

Positive Role Models

While the characters are fully developed, they are flawed and make mistakes, sometimes rooted in desperation. For instance, the lead character tries to steal a pack of batteries from a pharmacy when the price of his mother's medication goes up.

Diverse Representations

Movie centers on characters living in an RV park in California from lower middle-class backgrounds who are struggling to stay afloat. Characters struggle with making ends meet, sickness, domestic abuse, terminal illness.


A dead body in a diner. Woman hits man in the face with her walker, chipping his tooth. The man's girlfriend was shown earlier with a fat lip because he was physically abusing her. Character talks about how his stepdad would beat him up, and his mother did nothing to stop it. Gunshots, dead bodies after an attempted robbery of a diner.


Flirtation and dancing in a bar.


Occasional profanity, including "f--k" used a few times. Also: "bulls--t," "s--t,"sugart-ts," " piss," "son of a bitch," "damn."


Michelob signage on the hanging lamps in a diner.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Cigarette smoking. Marijuana smoking, dealing. Beer drinking. Talk of shot-gunning beers behind a convenience store. Character shown hungover. Character drinks beer despite warning not to as it doesn't mix with the pills they're taking for arthritis.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Cleaner is an indie drama in which a man who cleans houses for a living struggles to make ends meet and is hired to find the estranged son of a new customer. There's a dead body in a diner. Gunshots. Characters found killed after an attempted robbery. The mother of the lead character hits a neighbor in the face with her walker, chipping his tooth; in an earlier scene the man's girlfriend is shown with a busted lip due to his abuse. Character talks about how, when he was a boy, his stepfather would beat him up while his mother did nothing to stop it. Cigarette smoking, marijuana smoking (and dealing), beer drinking. Occasional profanity, including "f--k." The movie's slower pace, understated subtlety, and heavier themes of economic, physical, and emotional suffering make this best for mature teens and up.

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What's the story?

In THE CLEANER, Buck (King Orba) is a middle-aged house cleaner in Southern California struggling to make ends meet. He lives in an RV camp next to his ailing mother Sharon (Shelley Long), who suffers from arthritis. As his financial situation grows increasingly dire, he loses one of his oldest customers (Luke Wilson), who tries to make up for it by telling Buck about a neighbor who may be looking for someone to hire. Buck meets with the neighbor, Carlene (Lynda Carter), a former torch singer who wants Buck not for cleaning her house, but to track down her estranged son. Carlene offers him a hefty sum of much-needed money, and so Buck begins the search for Andrew. As the search takes him far outside his comfort zone, Buck gets help from his cop brother Craig, as well as his weed-dealing neighbor James. As Buck learns the real reason why Carlene wants to reunite with her son, he continues his efforts, and a violent altercation with tragic consequences reveals the fragile bonds of family and relationships in the face of past mistakes, shortcomings, and the struggles that so many face in day-to-day life.

Is it any good?

This is a powerful and subtle indie-drama on enduring in the midst of economic, physical, and emotional suffering. The Cleaner has all the hallmarks of a successful low-budget indie: understated action, strong character development, relatable characters, strong acting and story that more than make up for limited resources. Through the acting and the action of the story, it doesn't take long to see that most of these characters have seen better days (assuming they even had better days, in some cases), and the setting where most of the action takes place, an RV camp somewhere on the outskirts of Los Angeles, reveals so much about struggling in a reality where the middle class is disappearing fast. 

As Buck, the struggling housecleaner given a job he can't refuse, King Orba imbues him with the right level of weariness. The ensemble cast has a ridiculous amount of cameo appearances, and these characters heighten this sense of trying to not only endure in this world, but also to maintain a sense of hope and even dreams for a better life ahead. Like many indie-dramas, this might not be for those looking for lots of action, but The Cleaner reveals once again that solid acting, relatable characters, and a good story can do so much more on a limited budget than a blockbuster movie with a weak story and cliched characters.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about indie-dramas like The Cleaner. How is this similar to and different from other indie-dramas -- heavy on story if light on budget?

  • How do the struggles and challenges that the characters face connect to the deeper themes of the story? 

  • How is violence presented in this movie? Is it excessive? Necessary to the story?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love indie films and dramas

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