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Movie Review

It wasn't all that long ago that Rose Lorkowski's life was the envy of all her friends. She was popular, the captain of her high school cheerleading squad and dating the team's quarterback. But somehow, after graduation, all the happily-ever-afters were trampled underfoot by a bunch of bad breaks and poor choices.

Now she's a single mom struggling to stay afloat as an underpaid maid. She really wants to improve her lot. But all the free time she has is spent either raising Oscar—her trouble-seeking missile of a 7-year-old—or running off to cheap motel rooms for unfulfilling trysts with a married man. (Seems those poor choices are still a problem.)

But then Oscar's shenanigans get him kicked out of school and Rose decides a private education is the best thing for him. So the strapped-for-cash mom has to make some big changes—quick. Luckily, she gets a tip on a potentially lucrative profession from her (married) cop boyfriend, Mac. It's cleanup work. Not all that different from what she's doing now, Mac assures her. Only in this case she'll be cleaning up the biohazard mess of recently vacated crime scenes. Well, maybe it's a little different.

Rose needs a partner so she approaches her underachieving sister, Norah, with the idea. It's not as fun as, say, writing movie reviews for a living, but the money's good and Norah's currently out of work and living at their dad's house. So why not?

OK, now where was that Reader's Digest article about how to get blood out of ... everything?

Positive Elements

Rose is a very likable individual who works hard and tries to stay optimistic, no matter her situation. She loves her son and is ready to protect him. (She doesn't always know how to do that, but she still tries.) It's Oscar's need to attend private school that motivates her to reexamine her career and relational choices. And she readily steps up to take responsibility for her own less-than-wise actions. She even assumes responsibility for the fall-out from one of Norah's big mistakes.

After Rose and Norah start Sunshine Cleaning, they quickly come to realize that their job will include comforting those who have lost loved ones. They both find a sense of fulfillment in doing so. In fact, the crime cleanup job draws the two sisters together and ultimately helps them both find a self-confidence that they had not possessed beforehand. Rose's dad makes a self-sacrificial choice to help support his daughter.

Spiritual Content

When the Lorkowski sisters buy a used van for their business, the salesman tells Oscar that the CB system can send his words "straight up to the heavens." Oscar takes this literally and later turns on the CB to ask God questions about life and death. Rose uses the CB, too, to "talk" to her deceased mother. She tells her mom—who committed suicide when the girls were young—that it was "too bad" that she missed "some really great stuff" because of her choice.

Another suicide victim's bedroom has a number of crosses and crucifixes hanging on one wall. A small Buddha and incense paraphernalia are scattered about on someone else's dresser.

Sexual Content

Rose and Mac meet several times at a motel. We see them before or after sex as they hug, kiss and touch. Rose is usually dressed only in bra and panties. She straddles Mac in one scene. And she's putting on her bra in another. The camera shows Mac's bare backside as he pulls up his underwear.

In a scene that includes explicit motions, another man has sex with a mostly clothed Norah. Bored, she brusquely stops him when she sees a news report of a crime on TV.

Norah tracks down a woman named Lynn to give her some pictures she found in the room in which Lynn's mother died. Instead, the two strike up an awkward friendship that leads to a couple of "dates." It's never clear that Norah wants anything more from Lynn than friendship—but Lynn certainly does. And at a club, she slowly nibbles from Norah's candy necklace, nuzzling at her neck. Lynn later states that she thought Norah was "interested" in her.

Rose and Norah both wear form-fitting and/or low-cut tops. Bikini-clad girls populate a pool party. Other women sport cleavage-revealing tops. Crass sexual language punctuates one of the sisters' conversations.

Violent Content

For a dark comedy about cleaning up after murders and suicides, Sunshine Cleaning can be given credit for a modicum of restraint. In other words, it could have pushed things a lot farther than it did within its R rating. We see a bathroom covered in blood spray. There's a severed finger in a sink. A number of blood pools dot different floor surfaces. Blood has soaked into spots on a mattress and a lounge chair. (Norah falls face-first onto that stained mattress.) Stains and spatters are also visible on several walls, Rose's and Norah's gloves and protective wear, and on a man's neck.

Rose and Norah, as children, find their dead mother, with slashed wrists, in a bloody bathtub.

The most visually violent scene occurs at the beginning of the film when a man puts a shotgun under his chin and pulls the trigger. We hear the gun's report but don't see the shot's impact. Then we sit though a series of jokes made about parts of his body splashing down all over the store.

A house burns down.

Crude or Profane Language

About 15 f-words and at least that many s-words. God's and Jesus' names are misused over a dozen times. God's is combined with "d--n." Also showing up: "a--" and "b--tard."

Drug and Alcohol Content

Norah drinks a beer and smokes what looks like a joint while babysitting. Later, as if to erase doubt about what she was toking, she gets high at a party. Lynn, who says her mom was a "pathetic drunk," tells Norah she doesn't drink or do drugs because it "weakens you psychically." To which a visibly stoned Norah retorts, "You should probably just tell people you're Mormon."

People drink at a bar. Champagne appears at a baby shower. Norah carries several cans of beer while walking with Lynn. Rose is said to have been a smoker, and we see her put a nicotine patch on her arm after sex.

Other Negative Elements

Throughout the movie the adult Lorkowskis tend to teach young Oscar some rather negative lessons. For example, Norah tells him scary bedtime stories (after Rose had asked her not to) which keep him awake at night and then motivate him to act out at school. (It's reported that he's licking things, including the teacher's leg.) When the principal essentially expels Oscar, Rose tells her boy that he's done nothing wrong and blames the whole incident on the school. "It's not you, Oscar," she tells him. "It's them." Grandpa Joe reinforces that assessment and warns Oscar that they want to put him in the "retard" class.

Desperate to go to a baby shower hosted by an old classmate, Rose leaves the 7-year-old boy with a relative stranger at a cleaning supply store. Norah coaxes her nephew to celebrate his out-of-wedlock birth and buys him a fake tattoo that reads, "Lil B--tard."

To get their first job, Rose fibs about how long she and Norah have been doing biohazard cleanups. And when her dad has a sign printed up that trumpets "since 1963," she and he laugh it off as a "business" lie. "It's not the same as a life lie," he says.

Norah introduces Lynn to "trestling," an adrenaline-inducing activity that involves climbing up underneath a railroad trestle and getting as close to the thundering train above as possible without getting hit. (Of some mitigating merit is the fact that the movie clearly shows us that Norah goes trestling to try to momentarily rip away the pain of her life—especially her mother's suicide.)


There's a new movie template that's making the Hollywood rounds. It plays out as a quirky little comedic story of a foul-mouthed, dysfunctional, middle-American family striving to find its place in an offbeat world. That formula got a big boost a few years back with the box office success and Oscar nomination of R-rated indie pic Little Miss Sunshine. Now that film's producers are back, seeking cinematic gold once again with Sunshine Cleaning.

There's no denying that there are some engaging bits of human drama lurking in this story, along with a few solid messages affirming the value of life, the support of families and individual perseverance. You quickly find yourself rooting for the ever-hopeful Rose as she tries to throw off the painful baggage of her past and make a better life for herself and her son. And as odd as the splintered Lorkowski family can sometimes be, it's easy to like the rest of its members, too. You want to see them find the familial strength and love that will help overcome their challenges.

But digging down to those dramatic nuggets can be slowgoing, and in some ways as messy as one of Rose's crime scene cleanups. Sunshine Cleaning's dialogue isn't, um, clean. And illicit sexuality is paraded around in various stages of undress. Some of it is there to make a serious point about Rose's journey out of self-loathing into a semblance of self-assuredness. (She does, after all, finally end the affair with Mac.) But some of it is just there for R-rated indie-film showmanship.

You could say that beyond its devotion to delivering characters consumed by idiosyncrasies—and its obvious sister-sister bonding—Sunshine Cleaning is really about people searching for God while trying to make sense of their lives. Norah desperately tries to find Him at the trestle, telling Lynn that the train is like a "big, p---ed off god and he's right up in your face like screaming at you, you know. He's so close you can smell the metal on his breath."

Rose has been trying to find Him by clinging to her popular-girl past. Which means maintaining an ongoing relationship with her high school beau—who just so happens to be married to somebody else.

Oscar gazes heavenward and tries to talk to God on a broken CB. "Where was I before I was born?" he asks. "Where do you go when you die?"

God's nowhere to be found, though. The CB never crackles to life—either literally or figuratively. Light filters through a few cracks in the cinematic ceiling. But the sun never really shines.

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


Christine Jeffs ( )


Overture Films



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We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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