Sunshine Cleaning, directed by Christine Jeffs (2009).
This article was first published on Culturewatch, and is republished here by permission. © Tony Watkins and Pete Hartwell, 2009
The Lorkowskis are a dysfunctional family. Rose (Amy Adams) is a thirty-something single mother who works as a cleaner and is having an affair with her old high school sweetheart, Mac (Steve Zahn). Rose’s sister, Norah (Emily Blunt), is a slacker. She has no meaningful relationships, can’t hold down a job, and still lives at home with her father, Joe (Alan Arkin), whose many schemes to make a quick buck come to nothing. The biggest fracture in the family is the shadow of the suicide of Rose and Norah’s mother when they were young. It seems that none of them have never fully dealt with their grief, which hinders them from moving on in life.
Rose’s son Oscar (Jason Spevack) is the only member of the family who expresses himself freely – sometimes a little too much so. He becomes a catalyst for change in the rest of the family when he is excluded from yet another school. Rose decides she must get him into a private school, but she earns nowhere near enough money. So when she discovers she can make far more by cleaning up crime scenes than from her regular job, she recruits her reluctant sister, and together they go about cleaning blood-splattered walls, putrid mattresses and other residues of death.
The premise of Sunshine Cleaning could have made for a tasteless, slapstick comedy. But director Christine Jeffs and screenwriter Megan Holley, with admirable restraint, avoid cheap laughs, yet still use black humour to draw us in to a surprisingly sensitive, bittersweet character drama. Rose and Norah (and, to a lesser extent, Joe) are complex, refreshingly real characters who find themselves working through major issues in their own lives and in their relationship to discover genuine happiness which has, so far, eluded them.
At the start of the film, the family seems to be held together only by care for Oscar; he keeps them talking to one another. The relationships between the adults seem very functional and lacking emotion, and they are all highly critical of each other’s way of living. Rose and Joe are exasperated at Norah’s indolence and failures, whilst Norah contends that Rose is deluded for believing Mac will leave his wife for her. Rather than supporting and encouraging each other, the sisters are thorns in each other’s side. And they receive little warmth from Joe, who seems to feel that his daughters have never appreciated just how hard it’s been for him since his wife killed herself. Perhaps it’s the strain on these fundamental relationships, or maybe the emptiness of life generally, which drives Rose to seek comfort in the arms of a lover, and Norah to seek comfort through partying and sleeping around. The problem is that none of these relationships fulfil their emotional needs, and their lives are diminished as a result.
However, their encounters with death, and with those experiencing tragic loss, enable them to see life in new ways. In one powerfully poignant scene, Rose and Norah arrive at a house to clean up after an elderly man’s suicide. Seeing the widow’s distress, Rose looks beyond the job to the needs of the living, and she simply sits with the lady, holding her hand. Rose reaches out with genuine empathy because of her own experience of loss. Her brokenness is what enables her to do something beautiful. Later, Rose is with some people she hasn’t seen since High School and she vocalises how much she appreciates the job. She is touched by the privilege of entering ‘people’s lives when they’ve experienced something profound and sad’, because, ‘in some small way, we help’. It creates in both Rose and Norah a sense of purpose in life. They want not only to excel at their work professionally, but also to help emotionally those who are left behind.
Dealing with death on a daily basis also enables the sisters to talk about their mother’s death – a profound moment of connection which moves them both to tears. It is a crucial part of a healing process for the whole family. This catharsis and their newfound sense of purpose empower them to deal with the mess in their own lives and repair their relationships, to redeem the pain of the past and find hope for the future.
Sunshine Cleaning also touches on spiritual questions concerning death and life. When Rose buys a van for the business, Oscar asks about its CB radio but misunderstands when the salesman explains that it broadcasts his voice to the heavens. Later, he climbs into the van, pulls down the handset and asks some deep questions: ‘What was I before I was born? What happens when we die? Can you see everything down here? If you don’t believe in heaven, where do you go when you die?’ Towards the end of the film, Rose does something similar, and she quietly sits in the van, using the radio as a chance to put into words what she would love to be able to say to her mother. There are questions about what happens after death, but no answers. Rose certainly doesn’t know, but she expresses a common hope that there is something more than this life.
The fear of death is constantly in the background in Sunshine Cleaning, and it’s something which many people prefer not to think about. In an age of rapidly developing medical technology, we begin to stop seeing death as something inevitable. But it is, and as this film reminds us, it can come unexpectedly and traumatically. However, the Bible affirms strongly that death need not be the ultimate tragedy, something to be feared, because of what God’s Son, Jesus Christ has done for us:
Because God’s children are human beings – made of flesh and blood – the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying. (Hebrews 2:14–15)
Jesus sets people free from the fear of death because he died the death we deserve for our rejection of God’s rule in our lives. But it all depends on whether or not we accept what he has done for us. We can continue in our rejection of him, or we can accept this extraordinary gift – and then we can see death as the threshold to an eternity with God. This life remains full of pain and grief, but it need not be without hope. Rose and Norah find hope awakening in their broken lives as a result of death reshaping their perspectives and values. But it’s a limited hope. The hope Jesus offers is far more profound, bringing wholeness instead of brokenness, bringing a deep inner cleaning instead of the stains of our rejection of God, and giving us life instead of death:
When God our Saviour revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:4-5)