Over the weekend I watched, and enjoyed, “Sunshine Cleaning“. It’s a new movie by the producers of “Little Miss Sunshine” (and also staring Alan Arkin, the heroin snorting grandfather from “Little Miss”). It touches on a number of personal finances issues, such as entrepreneurship, career satisfaction and the impact of money within a family.
Like “Little Miss Sunshine”, the film examines failure from within a family (where each member has failed). Two sisters, Rose and Norah, have been unable to get their lives on track (and gone through a series of unengaging jobs). Their father views himself as a “businessman” but moves from one hairbrained scheme to the next, losing money as quickly as he makes it (and promises his family more than he is capable of delivering). One of the sisters has a son, Oscar, who is incapable of functioning in public school (going through a series of misbehaviours, culminating with licking objects around the classroom and his teacher’s leg).
On the advice of a married man Rose is having an affair with, the two sisters start a company cleaning up “biohazardous waste” (that is, messy dead bodies). In spite of the unconventional nature of the enterprise, it engages the entire family and each is able to finally transcend their failures and enact change within their lives.
Throughout the movie Rose repeats self-help mantras to herself “You are strong. You are powerful. You can do anything. You are a winner.” In spite of her forced positive attitude, her life is clearly not what she expected it to be graduating from high school as the head cheerleader. Finally at the end of one of these pump herself up sessions, she looks in the mirror and admits “I’m a fucking loser”. She gives up on the “magic of positive thought” and finally takes responsibility for changing her own life.
My generation has a complex relationship with work. While my father was content with a steady paycheck and keeping food on the table for his family (and was willing to trudge off to the factory every day to provide that), my generation *tries* to get fulfillment, esteem and self-actualization from our work (we’re higher up on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). We’re not always successful, but we try.
An easy critism of this approach to life is that we can’t all go off and be painters and novelists. Someone has to keep the water running if society is going to continue to function. I think Rose’s journey in this movie is an excellent example of someone who finds work that is personally fullfilling, while is still being a service to her community. At a baby shower friends she was embarrased to see during her previous careers ask her apprehensively if she likes cleaning up bodies. As Rose discusses how fulfilling it is for her, she becomes noticably prouder and more confident about herself. She leaves half-way through the shower when she realizes that she doesn’t have anything to prove to her friends: she’s proven everything that matters to herself.
From a purely narrative perspective, I found elements of this movie frustrating. A number of storylines ended without resolution, but perhaps this was intentional: this isn’t a neat easy drama, it’s messy like life. The themes are fresh and interesting, the acting and characters are engaging and the story is compelling.
If you can handle a bit of colourful language and dark humour, I recommend grabbing “Sunshine Cleaning” on your next trip to the video store.