Sunshine Cleaning (2009)

Rated R. Our ratings: V-0 ; L-3; S/N-6 . Running time: 1 hour 31 min.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not
condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and
you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A
good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running
over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give
will be the measure you get back.”
Luke 6:37-38

Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger…
Ephesians 4:26

The Kowalski family.

2009 Overture Films

Within a few weeks of each other we have been graced with two films exploring relationships be tween a pair of sisters. Although not as good as I Have Loved You So Long, director Christine Jeffs and screenwriter Megan Holly’s dark comedy is well worth the price of admission. The film has reminded some critics of Little Miss Sunshine, partly due to Alan Arkin again playing a quirky grandfather mentoring in a dubious fashion his grandchild (a boy this time), but I was reminded more of the old tale of “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” Older sister Rose (Amy Adams) is a single mother desperately needing money to pay for the private schooling that her 7 year-old son Oscar (Jason Spevack) needs because he is always in trouble at his public school, so much that the principal has decreed that he must be medicated if they are to keep him as a student.

Rose Norkowski works hard as a house cleaner, whereas younger sister Norah (Emily Blunt) still lives with their dad, Joe Norkowski, and parties most of the time. When Rose’s paramour Mac (Steve Zahn), a married cop who was her high school sweetheart and father of her son, suggests that she could make a lot more money cleaning up after crime scenes, Rose almost forces her reluctant sister to join her in a venture that does indeed turn out to be highly profitable, which she names “Sunshine Cleaning.”

The film provides us with a brief excursion into the underbelly of society that is well worth the trip. Rose is one of those service providers ignored by most people, her initial work so lowly that her new work as a biohazard removal/crime scene clean-up service provider seems to her like a step up in the world. However, there is no romantising of this: although the pay is much higher, it is a smelly, filthy, stomach-turning job, cleaning up after people whose blood, brains or other organs have been splattered over a wall or floor, due either to a self-inflicted gun shot or by murder. Especially poignant is the scene early in the film in which Rose is embarrassed when a housewife recognizes her from their days together in high school. Rose had been the cheer leader-beauty queen dating Mac, then the captain of the football team, and the classmate had then envied her. Later Rose accepts her invitation to a party (I think it might have been a baby shower), where Rose, never having attended college, very quickly feels out of place, everyone else having reached a far higher economic and social level than she and her sister.

It is while she is at this party that her sister Norah burns down a client’s house through negligence, thus bringing their well-paying venture to an abrupt end. It also brings to an end their sisterly relationship, until….This is a film that has its many light moments, but which are often overtaken by adversity. We gradually learn, through a series of increasingly longer flashbacks to the scene in which the two sisters (as little girls) are clad in swim suits while enjoying a sprinkler hose, why Norah especially has grown up so troubled. Rose, being older, remembers much about their deceased mother, whereas Norah’s memories consist of her death and her funeral. Rose is troubled too, as we see in a secular “prayer” she utters. And in a reconciliation scene she, unknowingly, sheds some light on the two Scripture passages listed above. This is another little indie film, so you might have to go out of your way to find it.

For reflection/Discussion Contains spoilers.

1. Compare the two sisters: do you think that “ant and grasshopper” is a fair way to begin to describe them?

2. What about their father: do you think that he has spent virtually his entire life following get rich quick dreams? How does he come through for everybody at the end of the film?

3. How do the filmmakers not adhere to the formula of so many comedies? Did you expect at least one of them to find “her man” ? How did the one man available, cleaning supplies store clerk Winston, not fit the usual mold of a romantic interest?

4. How did you feel when Rose finally ended her clandestine affair with Mac? What contributed to her decision? How is this like what happened to the younger son in Jesus’ parable of the father and two sons? (See Luke 15:17.)

5. How is Rose’s soliloquy in their van like a secular prayer? What does it reveal about her own inner life? Have you had such thoughts about a deceased family member or friend, their having done something so terrible that you wish it could be undone?

6. What do you think of the reconciliation scene? How is Rose herself not in a position to judge (given her relationship with Mac)? How do the above Scriptures relate to this? How can we “be angry” and not sin? What do you think of the memories of shoes that each sister retained from the funeral? Similar, and yet how different?

7. How does this film grant us a glimpse of those trapped in what we have called “the underbelly of society” ? Richard Florida in his fascinating book The Rise of the Creative Class suggests that through creativity some members of “the service class” will be able to rise up and enter “the creative class,” through which an increasing number of people will reap more rewards as well as have a greater impact in shaping our society. How does the ending of the film suggest that the Norkowskis have risen to this level? But given their troubled past, do you think that they have achieved the wisdom so as to remain there? (See the Proverbs passage in the review of The Class.)