Sunshine Cleaning
Inspirational movie transcends quirkiness __ 8/10

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Sunshine CleaningWritten by Megan Holley
Directed by Christine Jeffs

Amy Adams ... Rose Lorkowski
Emily Blunt ... Norah Lorkowski
Alan Arkin ... Joe Lorkowski
Jason Spevack ... Oscar Lorkowski
Steve Zahn ... Mac
Mary Lynn Rajskub ... Lynn
Clifton Collins Jr. ... Winston

Rose Lorkowski: (paraphrasing) Yes, I do clean up special sites, often after a tragedy such as a death or a suicide of a loved one. I'm extremely proud of what we do, especially how we touch people's lives and help in a small way to lift their sadness and loneliness.

On the surface , Sunshine Cleaning seems to be among the movies about quirky people, that is movies about individuals who are pleasantly offbeat or don't fit the mold. But scratch the surface and there's a firm reality to everyone on the set, from:

  • the affair between (married) Albuquerque police detective Mac (Steve Zahn) and Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) who was a top cheerleader in high school and now, a single mother, works as a maid locally for minor ducats.

  • Rose's father Joe (Alan Arkin), who carries the genes of a street peddler, connives constantly to sell his unusual baubles and trinkets to every merchant on the block.

  • Rose's sister Norah (Emily Blunt) has become known as the town screwup, she's irresponsible and careless, loses job after simple job; she keeps body and soul together through generosity of Rose and her father.

  • the six-or-seven-year-old boy, Oscar (Jason Spevack), Rose's son, seems to be a troubling little mess; Rose is constantly being called by school officials for some unusual behavior of his... they want to drug him up.[1]

These characters and their conditions are the starting point of the story. And when you take a good look at them, it's pretty clear they could be "just folks" in Anytown, USA. By that I mean real people. Nothing is working out for the main characters the way they want, or what they expected.

Then of a sudden, one day, Mac suggests to Rose that she tackle some of the special cleanup jobs often required in the course of police work. The kind of cleanup that takes care of blood getting splattered on the wall or the accumulation of awful junk, sometimes living organisms, in dwellings where everything is left to rot. Interesting. We watch as Rose, first by herself, then acquiring her sister's help, mops up in these special circumstances... both literally and in terms of a paycheck. Much more lucrative than making beds at Motel 6.

So what's going to happen with each of the characters?

Very good writing I would say. There's a particularly traumatic event in the background of the Lorkowskis. How the girls have coped heretofore is of interest, but Sunshine Cleaning—the name they give their company—opens up a whole new vista of self-worth. Particularly for Rose. She is the most fascinating and central of the characters. As she gets those first few contracts, threads the maze of state "occupational licensing and regulation" that afflict any independent business (especially 'biohazard' waste removal), and claws her way to a toehold on the mountain, her boy grows with her.

Though not central at the outset, a local cleaning-supply and hardware store owner, Winston (Clifton Collins, Jr.) quietly and calmly helps the girls get themselves started. He has a lot of knowledge of the industry, even suggesting a special course Rose needs to take to get a required certificate. They seem to bond. But it's the boy, who everyone pretty much shuns, that taps into a special channel of communication with Winston... who has lost an arm. Winston has a hobby of making precise models of cars and planes and such; saying little, but full of compassion, he's a beacon of spiritual enlightenment in a sordid world.

Winston is not in the least self-conscious about his handicap, nor does he feel the need to explain it to anyone. He accepts himself as he is and he accepts people as they are. Both Rose and Oscar—even Norah and Joe —feel his inner peace and power.

This truly is a movie about spiritual growth, even achievement, through adversity. Rose has always been attractive, as she says:

There's not a lot that I am good at. But I'm good at getting guys to want me. Not date me, or marry me, but want me.

So by virtue of that superficiality of looks, with hope and a smile, she's let herself carry on with a married man whom she knows in her heart of hearts is never going to leave his wife and children. Ironically, by this man's suggestion, Rose begins to take control of her life. And eventually it may turn out she won't need Mac anymore... because with him there was no control, at least not of her imagined future of romantic happiness.

I love the way the writer weaves the threads of growth in Rose's life—her liberation of her son from government-school tyranny, the kid's channeling of productive energy thanks to his relationship with Winston, Rose's growing competence at a job few people have the stomach or sensitivity for. Then two other developments that are much more subtle and potent:

  • The fact that during her cleanups, she takes the time to absorb the pain of those left behind, say, from a suicide or an untimely death; in one scene she sits with an elderly woman who has just lost her husband, she sits quietly with the woman and holds her hand for well more than an hour.

  • The fact that Rose knows increasingly that what she does is a vital service, and she says so. The scene referred to at the opening quote above is in the context of a baby shower; Rose has met, in town, a woman she used to cheer with in high school. The woman married upwardly mobile and is a shallow Stepford Wife wannabe. It is here, at the shower, that Rose asserts herself: "I like it. I'm good at it. People love me for it. And I deserve mountains of respect for it. Now, all I have to say to you, little Suzy and the Homemakers, is coming to this baby shower wasn't such a good idea. See ya."

I feel the urge to cheer out loud. All of the other main characters, including Winston, are admirable in their ways... and interesting. But Rose is the one you attend to, the one whose determination to rise above her life script inspires us.

Good directing and photography and music, by which I usually mean that the essential ideas of the writer(s) are expressed competently, if not beautifully. I'm sure Alan Arkin must have contributed to the flow of the creative process on the set, and one would think may have helped to get the movie made. Neither the writer nor the director are well known for much; they seem to be at the start of their careers.

If I'm a Randian, an Objectivist, I would definitely put this little movie on my A-list. It has the "Eddie Willers Factor." There may one day be a fan club for this subordinate character in Atlas Shrugged who was not a multizillionaire genius, or a captain of industry, and served his whole life as the heroine's infatuated secretary. But in real life, after the cultural rebels win their day, I'll bet dollar signs to donuts he found some gumption and asserted himself at something: video poker, computer wizardry, space junkie, antique car restorer, poet, movie critic...

Not the leading man, but the real everyday man. Same as Rose, not the leading woman, but the real everyday woman... a hero, my kind of hero, in every way.


[1] The scene where the principal threatens to give the boy drugs, impressing on his mother, Rose, that he doesn't need her permission, "he can require it," is worth a hundred Liberty Dollars in true education value. We get the first installment of Rose's quiet, desperate heroism when she yanks the kid out of that damned school immediately. Widgets

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