Sunshine Cleaning … Entrepreneurship as catharsis

Written as a guest post for my friend Leah MacVie’s blog, the original post is located here.

The 2008 Sundance favorite Sunshine Cleaning, written by Megan Holley and directed by Christine Jeffs, is a phenomenal look into the emotional fragility of two young women trying to find their way in life. Rose and Norah Lorkowski are at the age where adulthood should be in full force, dependent lifestyles at home with school grades a top priority long gone. But these two haven’t had the most idyllic childhood; in fact, some may say they grew up way before their time. With a mother who committed suicide while they were still young and a father more involved in wasting money through get rich quick schemes than being there for his daughters, the girls had to fend for themselves. As a result, Rose took it upon herself to play Mom—excising that role from her own life, growing up overnight—to help Norah cope. While well intentioned, this move only makes things worse as she ruins her own chance at normalcy and instills feelings of bitter resentment in her sister, a troubled girl with a tough, sarcastic façade.

Through her entire life, Rose (Amy Adams) was too involved in helping others—admittedly always good at sharing—neglecting her own wellbeing. Wanting so much to fit in, she becomes a cheerleader and girlfriend to the football team’s captain, living that clichéd dream of a juvenile unaware of what she wants, staying busy when away from Norah (Emily Blunt) so as not to allow time for the reality of discovering her dead mother’s body to sink in. Unfortunately, this lifestyle only pummels her self-esteem down further and further to the extent she’s now in her late twenties, still playing Mom to her sister and father (Alan Arkin), taking care of her own learning disabled child, lacking a college education, possessing a dead-end job cleaning houses, and finding nights to sleep with her old high school flame (Steve Zahn), now married with kids of his own. It’s gotten so bad that the only way to function and leave her home each morning, feeling as depressed and worthless as she does, is to look in the mirror and say, “you are strong and powerful”.

While those sentiments may appear lies at first, Rose finally reaches the point of no return, choosing full submission—possibly leading down a path toward her mother’s demise—or turning things around for a fresh start. People say junkies have to hit rock bottom before finding the strength to get back up; Rose does too. She can gloss over the bad by using adulterous evenings for escape only so long and the money earned by cleaning won’t travel far enough to support special schooling for her son. The realization she has pretty much become a prostitute for false love arrives as the final straw. But getting away from the boyfriend only works if she has a steady cash flow, so the opportunity to jump on the crime scene hazard removal path, no matter how illegal doing so without correct paperwork is, becomes her last chance to be the person she always wanted to be—happy. It won’t be easy due to her complete ignorance towards the job’s qualifications and the attempt to mend family fences at the same time, but the truth of the matter is, Rose never felt more satisfied or as proud in her life.

Constantly the girl on the outside, used and abused without a peep of defiance, it’s only becoming self-employed that she can grow as a person. Trying to be the matriarch of her family stifled her evolution and trapped her in a life devoid of achieving pure joy, but that was her role, her identity. Until something supplanted it, she’d wallow in self-pity for eternity. It’s the job and earning a wage to support her and her family that shakes the cobwebs of indifference away. Not only does it bring in a lucrative amount of money, it also allows her a venue to reconnect with Norah as an colleague and sister, help her son reach his full potential educationally and socially, and find a reason to advance her own mind’s growth. It comes with rules and regulations—licenses are needed to dispose the hazardous waste legally—and one man, Clifton Collins Jr.’s waste distributor Winston, is placed in a position to either crush her hopes or help her accomplish what she needs before she’s caught. This stranger becomes the first male figure to ever give a helping hand without wanting something back in return.

And all these positives are available because she takes that leap into entrepreneurship. Fed up being a girl with no real stake in any endeavor she attempts, this company becomes her rebirth. She’s rebranded as Sunshine Cleaning, an honest, efficient, and reliable company soon residing on the top of everyone’s list for biological waste needs. It is one thing to supply a product or a service, but another altogether when doing so with pride and humanity. I myself have never shied away from paying a little extra if it means using a company I respect rather than one going through the motions, treating me as just another number. You see it in Tommy Boy too—although infused with much more humor—with the evolution of Chris Farley’s Tommy Callahan from dimwit to ‘mom-and-pop’ company savior. There is something to be said for a businessperson willing to shake your hand and look you in the eye without some suit as proxy. We live in a society full of silver spoons, or the illusion of them; the youth of America has been raised with a sense of entitlement rather than work ethic. Without pride and purpose, our world has been filled with half-assed workers, doing the least bit possible to ‘earn’ their paycheck.

This pride in oneself can be achieved in numerous ways—through work, family, friends, achieving goals, etc. But in Rose’s case, it’s the career and possibility of a stable future that makes it happen. It may not be the job she dreamed of doing as a little girl, nor did she come into it easily. She’s faced her fair share of tragedy and heartbreak, overcoming some and falling prey to others. Sometimes Rose has recovered to take one step forward, but the pressure of the world resting on her shoulders meant the regressions push her two steps back. At the end of her rope and the her mother’s decision looming over her head, it’s the leap of faith to finally do something for herself—and in effect those she loves—that saves her family from unraveling beyond repair. It was a long time coming, but the ability to reach a point of satisfaction, to have the self-worth to excise the parts of her life that have been weighing her down, allows her and her sister a well-earned second to breathe. Only in accepting one another and themselves can they find the time to grieve for the mother they loved and lost too early.

photography:
[1] (Left to right.) Jason Spevack, Amy Adams, Alan Arkin and Emily Blunt star in Overture Films’ Sunshine Cleaning. © 2009 Big Beach, LLC. All Rights Reserved. Distributed by Overture Films. Photo Credit: Lacey Terrell
[2] Clifton Collins Jr., and Amy Adams star in Overture Films’ Sunshine Cleaning. © 2009 Big Beach, LLC. All Rights Reserved. Distributed by Overture Films. Photo Credit: Lacey Terrell

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