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Cinema in Focus: ‘Sunshine Cleaning’

The pains of our childhood are inextricably woven into the patterns of our adult lives

3 Stars — Challenging

Recovering from a trauma which occurred during childhood is far more difficult than most people realize. Haunted by the event, it is common for a young adult to fall into situations that mimic or even repeat the trauma in some remarkable manner. The reasons for this are many, but the reality is common enough that most of us will identify the truth to this film by director Christine Jeffs entitled Sunshine Cleaning.

Written by Megan Holley, the story centers on Rose Lorkowsky (Amy Adams), a twenty-something young woman who was the captain of her high school cheer team. Having peaked in high school, we soon realize her rudderless life has gone adrift. Instead of marrying her high school sweetheart who was the quarterback of the football team, Rose became pregnant and is now a housecleaner who is relegated to having an affair with her high school beau, Mac (Steve Zahn), who chose to marry someone else.

Sharing the pain of the past trauma is her younger sister, Norah (Emily Blunt), and her father, Joe (Alan Arkin). Playing essentially the same perverse grandfather character as he did in Little Miss Sunshine, Arkin’s Joe is not a good mentor and father-substitute to Rose’s son, Oscar (Jason Spevack). Alone and scheming to find ways to make money, Joe has also lost his way. Rather than being set adrift as her sister and father have become, Norah is aware of and fighting against her pain. Partying hard and trying to fill the hole in her soul, Norah cannot keep a job or a relationship. And impressionable Oscar acts out his troubled family interactions by predictably getting into trouble at school on a regular basis.

We won’t spoil the film and describe the childhood trauma that devastated this family, but the title explains that there is a dark mess that needs a sunshine cleansing. Descriptive of the spiritual and emotional condition in their lives, what is most depressing about the film is these people’s obvious lack of friends or a community of faith that could have provided the support, cleansing and healing such relationships and beliefs provide. Instead, we find this family struggling with the storms of life and trying to find a safe port wherever they can, usually in unhealthy and self-sabotaging ways.

In the end, Sunshine Cleaning is a story of broken lives valiantly trying to survive without the resources that are so plentifully abundant. The isolated and rudderless lives portrayed by this film leave us troubled and unsettled, especially as we realize that no one has to live life in such an unsatisfying way.

Discussion:

» Have you experienced a childhood trauma that overwhelmed you? How has this difficulty impacted your life?

» Rose explains to Winston (Clifton Collins Jr.) that she can only get men to want her and not to marry her. What is it about her behavior that causes her to be in that situation?

» It is a common experience that people who peak in high school often find adult life disappointing, whereas people who find high school difficult find adult life enjoyable. Do you find that to be true or not in your own life? Have you observed this to be true in others’ lives?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church on the Mesa. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.

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