Director: Christine Jeffs, 2008.
If you've seen crime movies or TV shows you have no doubt seen numerous crime scenes. Dead bodies litter the celluloid landscape, with yellow tape keeping the curious back. But when the CSI specialists have taken all their specimens, the detectives are done, and the coroner's office has removed the corpses, who cleans up the mess that remains? Who you gonna call -- Ghostbusters? No, Sunshine Cleaning!
The film focuses on two sisters Rose (Amy Adams, Doubt) and Norah (Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada), and their would-be entrepreneur father Joe (Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine). This is a typical dysfunctional family, each with their own problems. Rose is a single mom who can't find a man to marry. Norah is single and can't hold down a job. Joe has too many crazy ideas with no business plan to separate the good from the bad and the ugly.
Rose, the former head cheerleader, is still in love with former boyfriend, high-school star quarterback Mac (Steve Zahn). But he is married with children. He is using Rose and will never leave his wife. Yet Rose is too weak to face this truth. She knows it, because she tries to motivate herself with a bathroom mirror pep-talk: "You are strong, you are powerful, you can do anything, you are a winner." Mere words are not enough. She needs a crisis and a catharsis.
Rose's self-talk, though it is addressing her diametrically reversed intrinsic condition, reminds her and us of a common plight. We want to be strong but we are not. It brings to mind words penned by Paul the apostle in Phil. 4:13: "I can do everything through him who gives me strength." Like Rose, Paul recognized his own weakness. But instead of looking at himself and seeking "bootstrap strength," he called on the Lord Jesus who said to him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Cor. 12: 9). In truth, Paul understood the concept of finding his strength in God alone: "For when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Cor. 12:10)
Rose's crisis comes when her son Oscar (Jason Spevack) gets kicked out of school. She faces a dilemma: she wants to put him in private school but her job as a maid, house-cleaning for others, won't pay the ticket. That's when Mac says there is big money in cleaning up crime scenes. With few options, she persuades Norah to join her in sisterly business venture, Sunshine Cleaning.
When they come to their first trailer park suicide clean-up, Rose tells Norah, "All we have to do is go in there and throw everything away." It sounds so simple. If only it were. In a sense, this is another of Rose's self-revelations. All her life she has been throwing everything away. She has not stopped to take stock of what she has and what she wants or needs. As the "responsible" older sister, she has always looked after Norah. Now she is doing this for other people.
Sunshine Cleaning is a comic drama focusing on dark subject matter -- suicide. The leads play well together and have good chemistry. As a quirky low-budget film, it is short but feels longer. It employs a little too many stereotypes for a typical indie movie, and the comedy feels strained in places. But it is of interest for its characters and offers two terrific scenes worth pondering.
In one scene, Sunshine Cleaning has been called out to Mrs. Davis' home, where her husband has killed himself. When Rose sees the widow lost in her loss, she tenderly asks, "Mrs. Davis, would you like me to sit with you for a little while?" As they sit together silently, simply holding hands and shedding quiet tears, it is a reminder of how we can minister to the grieving. Words carry little comfort. The present of personal presence is far more precious. As Job's three friends showed us, when they sat with the grieving man in peace and quiet for seven days they provided solace (Job. 2:11-13). But when they started to analyze and comment they created rifts (Job 3-31). We can best minister to a grieving friend by simply being there.
If this scene gives a glimpse into silent ministry, the next scene presents a beautiful verbal definition of ministry. When Rose is invited to a baby-shower of a former high-school friend, now very well-to-do, she sees this as a way to reconnect. But she is out of her league. She mops up after death; they sell real estate. She sits in silence with widows; they prattle on with each other about trivialities.
When she tells these so-called friends what she does, "We go in and clean up the mess and make sure that everything is clean and sanitary," they stare at her with mouths agape. "You like doing that?" they ask in unbelieving amazement. And that's when we see her catharsis, her eyes lighting up with fresh vitality. With a genuine smile of contentment and satisfaction on her face she answers them,
Yeah, I do. We come into people's lives when they have experienced something profound and sad. They've lost somebody. You know. And the circumstances, they're always different. But that's the same. And . . . we help. In some small way, we help.She has found strength in her weakness. She has discovered the beauty of serving others in distress and in need. She has found her vocation. If she were a follower of Jesus, she would say she has found her calling and ministry.
Ministry is all about serving those in need. Like Rose, if we are Christians we are called to serve (Gal. 5:13), to help those who are in need. If we can enter people's lives and make a difference by helping them in some small way, then we have succeeded in ministry. We do this for Jesus (1 Cor. 10:31) and in his strength (1 Tim. 1:12, 1 Pet. 4:11). And regardless of what our form of service is, whether to the Rescue Mission or to the widow, to the newcomer with no friends or to the criminal reestablishing himself in society, Jesus knows our hearts. If we help them, then one day we will hear those precious words coming from our Savior's mouth, "Well done, good and faithful servant! . . . Come and share your master's happiness!" (Matt. 25:21)
Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs