At first glance, Sunshine Cleaning seems to be a funny and sentimental film about a woman trying to work hard to make a living, care for her son, and reconcile a tense relationship with her sister – all with the indie vibe of Little Miss Sunshine, from which it borrows the great acting skills of Alan Arkin, producers, and setting. In fact, the trailer would have you believe that this film is an offbeat comedy and a rather lighthearted affair. A closer look reveals a more reflective story as the characters deal with their sadness, trauma, and grief.
Rose (Amy Adams) is a single mother, working as a maid to get by, supporting her son, Oscar (Jason Spevack). Oscar is an imaginative kid, but is often in trouble at school. Oscar’s father is not in the picture, and Rose is still in love with her high school sweetheart, Mac (Steve Zahn). Unfortunately, they have to meet secretly since Mac married someone else. Rose’s sister, Norah (Emily Blunt), soon gets fired as a waitress and moves in with their father (Alan Arkin). The family is struggling to keep it together. They have all spent a long time running from the past, but remain in its grip, seemingly unable to escape.
At Mac’s suggestion, Rose decides to get into the business of cleaning crime scenes. Rose invites Norah to join her. Jumping in headfirst, they buy an old van with a CB radio. The used-car salesman jokes that the radio is for “talking to those in heaven.” Oscar tries the radio, but his message does not elicit any response – just silence.
As Rose and Norah begin to clean up after dead bodies, the scenes trigger memories of their mother’s death, and Rose and Norah can no longer simply ignore this trauma. Rose begins to see how complacent to living life she has become. She realizes that nostalgia has kept her in pursuit of some idealized past, rather than making realistic choices on the journey to maturity. Norah steals small objects from a scene as a way to feel empathy from another woman who has lost her mother.
While in many respects this film is typical in its depiction of characters dealing with loss and grief, it distinguishes itself by placing Rose’s and Norah’s conversations with God as central to coming face to face with their suffering. In an exhilarating scene, Norah takes a new friend to go “trestleing.” Norah climbs up the trestle of a bridge. From there she can feel the train overhead mere inches away. To explain why she says, it is there that she can hear God and smell steel on his breath. Similarly, Rose goes into the empty van to talk in the CB, to tell her mother how much she misses her. She prays as a way to struggle with what seems like her mother’s senseless choice.
Both Rose and Norah cope with their childhood trauma by controlling their emotions, experiences, and relationships. They avoid becoming truly vulnerable with themselves and others so that they will not have to be reminded of their sadness. But as they express themselves in experiences and conversations with God, they can let go of the trauma that has kept them captive. It is these moments that give them the ability to begin a process of recovery. They come to understand the complexity of the world and their relationships, and it allows them to begin again. By no longer living in denial, they are reconciled to the people around them that they love.