Review: HOUSEKEEPING FOR BEGINNERS, A Community Unlike Any Other (Except For All the Rest)

There’s a moment in Housekeeping for Beginners, the third film from the Macedonian-born, Australian-based filmmaker Goran Stolevski (Of an Age, You Won’t Be Alone), where two women, Dita (Anamaria Marinca) and Suada (Alina Serban), wait impatiently for an oncologist to finish a phone call. The call falls on the wrong side of important, but it’s an early indication of the condescension, mistreatment, and neglect faced by the Romani population in current-day Northern Macedonia where Housekeeping for Beginners takes place.

Through a deliberate, clear-eyed accumulation of detail rather than delivering background information via awkward expository dumps, the audience learns that the Romani are outcasts, pariahs, perpetual outsiders freely discriminated against by the melanin-challenged population. Dita and Suada are also lovers, their relationship unrecognized by state authorities, making Suada the object of intersectional discrimination while Dita, privileged by the color of her skin, her Macedonian name, and government employment as a social welfare worker, Suada’s unofficial protector.

Their home, owned by Dita, but filled with seemingly permanent guests, including a lesbian trio, Elena (Sara Klimoska), Flora (Rozafa Celaj), and Teuta (Ajse Useini), Toni (Vladimir Tintor), Dita’s longtime friend who doubles as her straight cover in the outside world, his one-night stand turned something more, Ali (Samson Selim), and Suada’s two daughters, Vanesa (Mia Mustafi), a surly, unhappy teen, and Mia (Dżada Selim), a lively, rambunctious, preternaturally perceptive preteen.

While Dita’s home operates as a queer sanctuary in a country where being outed as queer can have any number of negative consequences, it’s to the multi-layered screenplay’s credit that it’s also refreshingly messy, filled with contradictions, complexities, and conflicts of mostly minor kinds. Personalities clash, insults fly freely and creatively, and doors slam in frustration, anger, or general annoyance as Dita, Suada, and the others try, sometimes more successfully than others, to live with each other under the same roof.

In short, they’re the kind of families that — to borrow a well-worn truism — like-minded, often marginalized people make for themselves, partly out of a general need for affection, companionship, and support, and partly as a bulwark against an intimidatingly hostile world outside the group home’s doors. It’s all the more important where queerness isn’t considered a matter of personal identity systematically protected by the rule of law but as a legitimate excuse for persecution by bigoted neighbors or associates and possible imprisonment by an intolerant government.

Housekeeping for Beginners hinges on exactly this dilemma: How can Dita, thrust unexpectedly into the role of substitute mother for Vanessa and Mia, navigate the obstacles and pitfalls of the Northern Macedonian legal system and, in effect, become their legal guardians? Add to that Vanessa and Mia’s status as Romani non-citizens and Dita faces the issue of finding workarounds, some less legal than others, to make their lives safer and more secure in a country that legally, socially, and politically rejects them.

Embracing the social realism of his second film, Of An Age, an overlooked queer romance set in Australia, Stolevski excels, sometimes brilliantly, in creating complex, frustratingly nuanced characters. In their biases, prejudices, and attitudes, they’re far from heroic or at times when they’re driven by petty, selfish desires, even relatable. Moments later, that selfishness can give way to compassion and altruism, a desire to preserve their fragile community. However, they are fully recognizable, human in their peculiarities and their universality.

Stolevski also excels in directing a cast filled with a mix of experienced and relatively inexperienced actors, eliciting grounded, naturalistic performances at practically every turn. As the semi-permanent houseguest desperate for a community to call his own, Samson Selim stands out as Ali while Mia Mustafi fearlessly leans into playing a teen character, Vanesa, who frequently borders on the unlikeable. Stolevski also deserves credit for directing the youngest performer in the cast, Dżada Selim in the pivotal role of Mia, into delivering a believably warm, tender performance.

Housekeeping for Beginners opens theatrically on Friday, April 5th, via Focus Features.

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