Eye For Film >> Movies >> Housekeeping For Beginners (2023) Film Review
Housekeeping For Beginners
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
Safehouses, where people come together out of necessity, are not known for being orderly places. Throw in a resentful teenager and a particularly exuberant five-year-old and you have a recipe for chaos. After the thoughtful, steady pacing of You Won’t Be Alone and Of An Age, this is quite a departure for Goran Stolevski, but despite the very different structure and tone of the film, there is no lapse in the quality which viewers will have come to expect from him. Like its predecessors, the film is immersive, emotionally intense and intellectually stimulating.
The aforementioned safehouse is run by Dita (Anamaria Marinca, who has worked with Stolevski before). She lives there with her partner Suada (Alina Serban) and Suada’s two children, Vanesa (Mia Mustafa) and Mia (Dzada Selim), as well as assorted other LGBTQ+ people who need a place of refuge in the frequently hostile environment of North Macedonia. We arrive there at the same time as Ali (Samson Selim), a skinny bleach-haired Roma youth who is the latest conquest of Dita’s best friend, Toni (Vladimir Tintor), but though at first he hangs around simply because he has nowhere else to go, it soon becomes clear that feelings between the two men are becoming more serious, whilst Ali proves to the perfect companion for Vanesa, who struggles to get along with the older adults, and the perfect babysitter for Mia, who shares his joy in creative play.
This messy but just about functional household is thrown into serious disarray when Suada is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Knowing that she’s unlikely to survive and desperate to safeguard her daughter’s future, she demands two things of the others: for Dita to become their mother, and for Toni to give them his name, so that nobody will know they are Roma and they won’t face the discrimination which has interfered with her life chances. This creates practical problems, as documents have to be forged and bureaucracy navigated to ensure that the children aren’t taken away. It also forces Toni to compromise his identity as a gay man, whilst Vanesa struggles with the idea of losing touch with her Roma identity and Dita has to deal with building relationships with she never envisaged having.
Living in homophobic societies and countries with unequal laws has always forced LGBTQ+ people to go to more elaborate lengths to build and defend family. Housekeeping For Beginners captures that in microcosm, but by exploring issues around ethnicity in parallel, it develops a more complex perspective on what it means to be an outsider. Vanesa’s situation is a complex one because, despite her genetic heritage, she has little understanding of Roma culture and tends to romanticise it. She’s caught in between two cultures and can’t easily fit into either. The framework of the story allows Stolevski to explore issues around inter-ethnic adoption with a careful balance of sympathies.
Although care is taken to avoid negative stereotypes, the depiction of the poverty in which many of the country’s Roma people live is shocking, and some of the issues flowing from that are deeply disturbing. They’re tackled with an acknowledgement of competing narratives which is rarely found elsewhere, and which does not compromise the narrative. For her part, Serban makes a tremendous impression in her small amount of screentime, with a ferocity and charisma which ensure that her presence lingers afterwards, all the way through to the end. This is balanced by the sweetness which Samson Selim delivers, making any kind of stereotyping impossible.
Marinca and Tintor give quieter performances, but both have sufficient skill to make us aware of the conflicted emotions present even when they’re calm. Dita and Toni do love each other, Ali assures Mia – just with a different sort of love. It’s that love which is most celebrated here, along with the strength it takes to hold a family together against the odds. Meanwhile, young Dzada Selim fills the film with heart and vivacious energy, much of her work improvised, making the wildly imaginative connections that only a child can.
For all the apparent chaos, this is a tightly controlled piece of work which fully delivers on the promise of Stolevski’s earlier films. It’s a fascinating change of direction which marks him out as one of the most promising talents of his generation. It screened as part of Newfest 2023, and you should catch it if you can.Reviewed on: 17 Oct 2023