The characters at the center of Sunshine Cleaning are like the crime scenes they're paid to clean up: messy, broken, and mired by tragedies of the past. Years after the death of his wife, Joe Lorkowski and his two daughters are still tremendously wounded. Sure, these wounds have somewhat scabbed over, but they haven't disappeared. Joe, Rose, and Norah are left with emotional limps that hinder their progress and growth. They're each, in some way, stuck.
The film's focus, older sister Rose (Amy Adams of Doubt and Enchanted), is plagued by low self-worth and insecurity. She stays in an unhealthy relationship with a married man. She burdens herself—in typical first-born style—with taking care of everyone around her instead of herself. She says she's going to school for a real estate license, but she's not. Instead, she doesn't believe in herself enough to change anything; she just wallows in an unsatisfying life as a maid.
Younger sister Norah (Emily Blunt of The Devil Wears Prada) is stuck in perpetual adolescence. The loss of her mom has manifested into complete idleness. She's noncommittal, lost. She's convinced she can't stand on her own and, therefore, she doesn't. She can't keep a job. She still lives at home. She just can't move on.
Their dad (Alan Arkin of Little Miss Sunshine and Get Smart) looks to the future with great optimism—making big promises and dreaming big—but can't apply realistic steps to get there. Instead, he hatches ill-fated schemes like selling raw shrimp from his car. Possibly due to unresolved bitterness and guilt, he watches his promises and dreams fall flat.
The story of this loving—but dysfunctional and broken—family is dressed as a quirky, postmodern independent drama/comedy similar to Little Miss Sunshine (which shares producers with Cleaning). And it is quirky, but reservedly so. And it does have a few laughs, but not consistently. Instead, Sunshine Cleaning ends up as a wonderfully acted but mostly flat, somewhat clichéd, and unconvincing story. With this cast and some of the movie's highs, I was disappointed. After all, the story is intriguing: When Rose decides that she must put her 8-year-old in private school, she forces Norah to help her in a new business cleaning up after murders, accidents, and suicides. Through this odd occupation, they find a purpose—not to mention long-needed healing.
It's in that growing and healing where I felt Sunshine Cleaning most lacks. Ironically, the film is great at creating this messy family but less successful in the cleanup. The ideas—of Rose and Norah growing closer, of this unlikely career bringing a sense of empowerment, and of this dirty job allowing them to help the hurting—are all provocative in theory. But in execution, these themes are all told more than shown.
For instance, does Rose truly become empowered? I felt that her status in the end wasn't so much a sign of her own empowerment but completely due to a male character who saved the day. Likewise, I wasn't able to rejoice in the evolution of Norah and Rose's relationship because I didn't feel like I saw enough of it to know what changed.
The theme that most excited me was the rise in Rose's self-worth—though I wanted to see more. I wanted to feel it. She makes a major decision about her unhealthy relationship, but I don't know what got her there. It just sort of happened. Such unconvincing plot developments creep up often—like when Rose drops her son, Oscar, off with a cleaning supplies store owner we've seen only once or twice. Apparently, she felt very close to him—but we don't see it. Subtlety in film can be powerful, but when a film is unclear about why characters make certain choices or why something even happens, it's frustrating. In the end, the film's biggest drawback is that it doesn't play like a living, breathing peek into life, but a script that dryly rolls out situation by situation.
Still, with a talented cast and emotionally-resonant plot, there's much to enjoy in Sunshine Cleaning. The daughters' constant lookout for pie scenes on TV is fascinating—and poignant when it's revealed why. Oscar's misunderstanding that a car's CB talks to heaven sets up two moving scenes in which characters reveal their thoughts about death, life, and dead loved ones. And in one powerful scene, Rose sits in silence with a grieving widow before cleaning up the mess of her husband's suicide.
My favorite scene is when Rose realizes she is finally—for the first time—proud of what she does. She says, "We come into people's lives when they've experienced something profound and in some small way, we help." It's an awesome moment. Adams, who answers her critics by showing range beyond cutesy and sweet, delivers the line in way that shows unfolding self-realization.
But as great as that moment is, it only made me wish the film had shown more of what Rose is telling us. Seeing the results of a good cleaning is one thing—but actually watching the transformation occur during a good hard scrubbing leads to far more fulfillment.Discussion starters
- What events or failures of the past have damaged you? What tendencies, weaknesses, or temptations do you fight because of emotional baggage you still carry?
- How do you see the actions of others affecting characters in the film? How have you been affected by the selfish actions of others?
- What milestones or personal victories do each of the main characters reach? How are each better off? What is the significance of Norah's status at the end?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Sunshine Cleaning is rated R for language, disturbing images, some sexuality and drug use. The film begins with a startling shotgun suicide; the actual impact is not shown but it is heard. A dead woman is found by her young daughters in the bathtub. There's a lot of blood—most of it is seen as dry stains or splatters, but there are also wet puddles. The offensive language is pervasive and includes almost every major swear including the Lord's name used in vain. A male is shown nude from the back, a female appears in underwear or lingerie often, and there's an emotionless sex scene (the only skin is the man's back). A woman kisses another woman's neck. A woman has a sexual relationship with a married man; they are often shown in a hotel room in stages of undress and sexual activity.
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