Healing Comes to the Broken-Hearted in Sunshine Cleaning


by Marc T. Newman [critic]

If Henry David Thoreau was right when he said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them,” then Sunshine Cleaning is a film about some exceptional, desperate people who learn to sing.

Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008, it has taken over a year for a wise distributor to deliver Sunshine Cleaning to the public. The timing could not be better. In the midst of a serious economic downturn, with people wondering which end is up, or even if there is an up, many will relate to the story of Rose Lorkowski – a maid who starts a most unusual janitorial service.

Directed by Christine Jeffs, Sunshine Cleaning explores our chaotic possession-and image-obsessed culture and the people on the outside who greatly desire to be part of that “in” group. The answer Jeffs advances is that the true meaning of life is rooted not in stuff, but in deeper things, and that joy can be found in serving others, in touching their lives. That this revelation comes only to those willing to recognize their own brokenness and their need for help borders on the biblical. Sunshine Cleaning is a thought-provoking film.

The Chaotic World

Pick up any glossy magazine in the checkout line at your supermarket and between its covers you will find the glistening, perfect world our culture says you should inhabit. Women’s magazines tout forty-ish women with glowing, flawless skin. Decorating guides are filled with before and after pictures of home makeovers, knowing that most readers live in “befores,” but long for “afters.” We want the car, the job, the house, the body, the clothes, and the relationship. Every acquisitive impulse is encouraged until we have built for ourselves “ether lives” – the lives we are told we really should have, but which, in reality, do not exist. The urge to strive after the impossible is the hallmark of an age which Daniel Boorstin described in The Image as one of “extravagant expectations.”

The truth is, we have essentially lost our ability to know what it is that we are made for. And into the gaping hole of meaninglessness we shovel anything, in hopes of filling it. But it is in vain. In the envious pursuit of a life style, we lose our lives, and never achieve the style.

Rose Lorkowski cannot understand what has happened to her. A popular cheerleader in high school, she assumed that she would marry her prom king boyfriend Mac, and go on to live happily ever after. Instead she has his child out of wedlock, while he marries her rival. Rose and Mac continue to see each other. She thinks he will someday leave his wife to marry her. His thoughts are solely on the adulterous affair they carry on in a local motel. And while he is now a rising police detective, Rose works as a maid for the Pretty Clean housecleaning chain.

Rose’s humiliation is complete when she meets an old classmate who married well and lives in a fabulous home. Rose is cleaning it. Ashamed at her menial work, Rose lies, saying that being a maid is only temporary until she gets a real estate license. But as she leaves the scene she recognizes that she is not among the chosen: by her high school sweetheart, by the lottery of life, or even by her mother, who committed suicide when Rose was just a child. She cannot take it anymore. She needs something to fill the void and give meaning to what she perceives as her meaningless life.

The Need of a Transcendent Ideal

Rose needs something to latch onto. When Mac makes it clear that it is unlikely to be him, he does at least give her the idea to get into the crime scene cleanup business. She already has most of the skills, and the pay is much better. Rose joins forces with her slacker sister, Nora, and they launch Sunshine Cleaning. At first, it is all about making money and having a business she can call her own: the materialist standard that is now all that is left of The American Dream. But an interesting thing happens to Rose as she slowly stumbles her way to success, aided by Winston, the one-armed owner of the local cleaning supply store. She recognizes the distinction between mere work and a calling.

Without any kind of transcendent ideal toward which to move, work becomes drudgery, the going-through-the-motions activity that secures our daily bread. But when we recognize a value in our work that extends beyond the work itself, and lends it meaning, then any respectable job becomes a source of spiritual fulfillment.

Rose and Nora begin by cleaning crime scenes with little opportunity to interact with anyone. Their job is simply to sanitize the area. But at a job in a trailer park, where a woman died, Nora finds a small zippered bag containing photos of a girl. As she goes through them, she sees the girl age: she is now a woman. They are supposed to throw everything out, but Nora sees in this an opportunity to reconnect the living woman with her dead mother – at least in some small way. She resolves to track her down.

Later, Rose and Nora arrive at a suicide scene. An elderly man, apparently with Alzheimer’s, has shot himself. Outside the house, the distraught widow sits, waiting for her son to pick her up. Rose offers to sit with her, and together they share a meaningful moment. The old woman receives comfort. The young one receives clarity.

Rose attends a baby shower thrown by the rich former classmate. No longer ashamed and no long feeling the need to lie, Rose exuberantly talks about her business, to the stunned amazement of the guests. She discovers that many of them only dabble at their work, content to be showpieces for their wealthy husbands. She tries to explain how her business, at least in some small way, really touches the lives of others at a critical time. As the shower devolves into crude party games, Rose has an epiphany. There is nothing to envy in these women. Hers is a meaningful life. She is not merely a crime-scene janitor to the dead; she is, for the living, a hand to hold, a listening ear, a calming voice, and a shoulder to cry on.

Striving Toward a Good End

Gaining a sense of herself does not eliminate challenges from Rose’s life. She continues to struggle with the abandonment she has felt since the death of her mother. Nora continues to make mistakes – one in particular nearly ruins them both. When Rose finally gains the courage to confront Mac about the direction of their relationship, she is cruelly disappointed by his answer. Things fall apart, but hope holds firm.

In an arresting scene, Rose steps into the used van she recently purchased. The car dealer told her son that the CB radio in the van sent out signals that went into the heavens. Rose uses the CB to reach out to her dead mother. As Rose speaks she expresses her disappointment at her mother’s suicide, but rather than descend into self-pity, Rose instead says that her mother made a great mistake. She has missed all that Rose has accomplished. Rose finally understands that she is not a loser. Recognizing that there are important things beyond our workaday lives is a crucial step toward achieving wholeness. Lasting things trump the temporal aspects of our lives. Jesus taught that “not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.” Sunshine Cleaning would agree. Sacrifice, forgiveness, reconciliation and persistence in attaining a good goal are at least some of the stuff of a good life.

In Sunshine Cleaning appearances are misleading. Those with “perfect” lives are really damaged people. Those with imperfect lives, who are striving to live meaningfully, are the healthy ones. Not everything works out neatly, but it often works out well.

The Introspective Look

How far down do people have to fall before they begin looking for answers to the troubling questions of life? Sunshine Cleaning presents a rock-bottom scenario. Perhaps it is not too far off the mark. When Jesus was speaking with a bunch of self-righteous Pharisees, they grumbled that He spent too much of his time with sinners. Jesus replied that it is the sick that need a physician, not the healthy. What Jesus knew, but the Pharisees did not, is that all humans are deathly ill. Unfortunately, those who cannot recognize the desperate brokenness of their lives are condemned to their living death.

Sunshine Cleaning is a good conversation starter. People might begin the film pitying poor Rose and Nora. But before long, they will see that, like the Pharisees, those who think themselves better than others are, in the most important ways, worse off. There is hope for the broken, but little for the willfully blind. There is no “rise up by your own bootstraps” moral to this story. Everyone who makes it needs help to get there – a great lesson to apply to this life. And an even more important one for those wise enough to also concern themselves with the life to come. ExileStreet

copyright 2008 Marc T. Newman

Marc T. Newman, Ph.D. is founder of MovieMinistry.com and is an associate professor in the School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to marc@movieministry.com

Leave a Reply