Amy Adams & Emily Blunt
Directed by Christine Jeffs
Original Screenplay by Megan Holley
Principal Actors: Amy Adams & Emily Blunt
Summary: News flash – houses don’t clean themselves! Although Sunshine Cleaning resembles 2007 Oscar-winner Little Miss Sunshine in several superficial ways, don’t let the coincidental “sunshine” reference blind you. Writer Megan Holley built her original screenplay around a story she heard eight years ago on National Public Radio—two women describing the trials and tribulations of running their own crime scene clean-up business. In Sunshine Cleaning, these friends become sisters Rose and Norah Lorkowski.
We’re culturally conditioned to believe that women who function as homemakers and caregivers aren’t interesting. For all the rhetoric about “motherhood and apple pie,” the work women do to maintain their households is usually trivialized and economically exploited. But Jeffs and Holley both understand there is genuine satisfaction to be derived from setting things aright (even knowing new messes await us tomorrow), and they move their story along with just the right mix of giggles and gross-outs.
News flash – houses don’t clean themselves! Yes, many activities of daily living have changed since the first Neanderthals left their caves, but human effort is still required to work all our labor saving devices. And even though many 21st century men now do tasks their ancestors would have found humiliating, housekeeping has always been “women’s work” and likely always will be. In her new film Sunshine Cleaning, director Christine Jeffs takes ownership of these historical truths to great effect.
Although Sunshine Cleaning resembles 2007 Oscar-winner Little Miss Sunshine in several superficial ways, don’t let the coincidental “sunshine” reference blind you. These two films have totally different storylines and fundamentally different aims. While most of the characters in Little Miss Sunshine want to “be somebody,” ambition is never a primary motivator in Sunshine Cleaning. Alternatives like suicide and addictive oblivion are essential plot elements, so when characters in Sunshine Cleaning decide to keep on keeping on, they’re fully aware of the option to give up and stop trying. But one thing Little Miss Sunshine and Sunshine Cleaning definitely do have in common: they’re both dramedies which depict real life dilemmas with warmth and comic flair.
Writer Megan Holley built her original screenplay around a story she heard one day on National Public Radio—two women describing the trials and tribulations of running their own crime scene clean-up business. In Sunshine Cleaning these friends become sisters: “Rose” (Amy Adams) and “Norah” (Emily Blunt) Lorkowski. Their mother died when the girls were youngsters, so Rose, the older sister, just took over, thereby setting up a pattern of mutual dependence bristling with resentment and hostility on both sides. Their father, “Joe” (Alan Arkin), tries to mediate in little ways, but mostly he keeps to himself, determined to stay out of their way.
When the film opens, Rose is working for a residential cleaning service. Her uniform is a pink tee shirt with the logo “Pretty Clean” above her right breast. Meanwhile Norah is waitressing in a tiny hamburger joint too small and too transient for uniforms. Rose is embroiled in a long, sad affair with a married cop named “Mac” (Steve Zahn) who is probably the father of her son “Oscar” (Jason Spevack), although Mac and Oscar never have any direct onscreen contact. Rose needs money, so Mac offers to recommend her for crime scene clean-up jobs. She’s cleaning up other people’s messes anyway, so why not get paid by an insurance company?
First time out, Rose has no idea what she’s doing, and Norah, dragged along like usual, knows even less, but gradually their new jobs take hold. Used to working in beautiful homes that can never be hers, Rose enjoys stepping into extreme situations and making things better, while Norah gets a buzz from her sudden proximity to other people’s intimate secrets. The money may not be much, but it’s definitely more, and soon Rose is reading manuals and registering for licensing exams, with Norah, Joe, and Oscar all feeding off her energy and resolve.
If you concede that Batman, Ironman, Spiderman and their multitudinous superhero friends all travel along parallel arcs, then I’ll concede that Rose and Norah resemble the lead characters in 27 Dresses, Blue Crush, In Her Shoes, and other films about girls who grow up without a nurturing maternal presence. For the best example, look with new eyes at Barbra Streisand’s film Yentl (recently re-released in a 2-disk 25th anniversary DVD box set). In both films, single fathers foist domestic responsibilities on their daughters when they’re way too young to cope. Nevertheless the heroines in both films eventually surprise themselves by finding genuine satisfaction in care-giving.
We’re culturally conditioned to believe that women who function as homemakers and caregivers aren’t interesting. For all the rhetoric about “motherhood and apple pie,” the work women do to maintain their households is usually trivialized and economically exploited. So it’s great to see a film that takes domesticity seriously without evasion or apology. Jeffs and Holley both understand there is genuine satisfaction to be derived from setting things aright (even knowing new messes await us tomorrow), and they move their story along with just the right mix of giggles and gross-outs.
Sunshine Cleaning is also blessed with two excellent lead actresses. Amy Adams provides most of the heart as Rose and Emily Blunt provides most of the humor as Norah, but both characters are complex and both arcs are illuminating. Adams has a lovely inner light that glows ever more brightly with each new bit of hard-won self-acceptance. Blunt is particularly good at slowly peeling back Norah’s defenses to reveal her soft side, and she shares some of her best scenes with Mary Lynn Rajskub (playing one victim’s abandoned daughter).
There are men in this story too, of course, but they’re all supporting characters. To their great credit, Jeffs and Holley refuse to distract us with romantic entanglements. (I remember being baffled by reviews of Under the Tuscan Sun that focused on the brief affair between Diane Lane and Raoul Bova. The film I saw was a love story about a woman and her house!)Sunshine Cleaning is a film that everyone should see. I hope it’s still playing on Mother’s Day. What a perfect (and gently didactic) family outing!
Excerpts from Jan’s Chat with Sunshine Cleaning Screenwriter Megan Holley
“The idea for Sunshine Cleaning started with me. I was driving one day, and I heard a story on National Public Radio (NPR) about a couple of women who had a crime scene cleaning/biohazard removal business, and I was like: ‘Oh, so fascinating–to have women in this world!’ I thought the attitude they had about their work was really rich, really interesting. I wanted that backdrop.”
“In doing research about crime scenes, and biohazards specifically, what strikes people on an immediate surface level is just the grossness of it: cleaning up gore. But what I found in doing research was this idea of service: reverence for the life that was lost, and respect for the family members and what they’re going through. Part of the ritual of cleaning up is respect for the tragedy; emotional care of the people that are left behind.”
“What often seems like a burden has its own rewards. My mom got very sick during the course of the past year, so I took care of her. Sometimes it felt like a burden, yes, but now, when I look back on it, I think, boy, what a gift—the level of intimacy that I got to enjoy because of the care I provided.”
“I don’t know whether it’s something innate about being a woman, but there’s attentiveness to the emotional complexities of a situation, being attuned to people’s emotions and caring for that. I don’t know if that’s innate, but I know personally, in my own life, that seems to be the case. And the women featured in this NPR interview? That definitely seemed to be what they were most concerned about.”
“So I started writing this script in 2001. I joined a writing group where you had to turn in 30 pages at a time, and my first thought was: ‘Okay, let’s just get 30 pages done and then the next 30 pages…’ Within those first 30 pages, I came up with the name of their business [Sunshine Cleaning] and I decided on that as my title for the script. So the title came about in 2001, but now it’s a little frustrating for me because I’m such an admirer of Little Miss Sunshine. It’s a lot to live up to.”
“The women in the NPR story weren’t sisters, they were friends. I don’t have a sister, I have a brother. Of course we have a very complicated relationship, as probably all siblings do. I’m the younger one: ‘the loser.’ Whenever I see my brother, we both revert back to roles that were solidified as kids. And it’s so frustrating for me, being the one who’s locked in the ‘irresponsible’ role, and I’m sure it’s also frustrating for him. You get locked into these roles.”
“Because of my own family dynamic, I could inhabit the character of Norah (played by Emily Blunt) much more easily than I could inhabit the character of Rose (played by Amy Adams). I tend to look at the world through the eyes of the younger sibling, so it was really wonderful to see what Amy did with the part of Rose. I think Rose felt a little harder-edged on the page than she is in the movie, but Amy added a whole new dimension to Rose, and I really understood that character in a way that I didn’t before. I learned how to look at the world through the eyes of the older sibling.”
“It all started eight years ago, with a story on NPR, so to see it up on screen is just spectacular for me. Amy and Emily are both amazing! Now I hope people will see Sunshine Cleaning and find something in it that resonates for them.”
March 27th telephone interview conducted, condensed, and edited by Jan Lisa Huttner.
© Jan Lisa Huttner (4/9/09) for the Fund for Women Artists
Photo Credit: Lacey Terrell © 2009 Big Beach, LLC. All Rights Reserved.