Housekeeping for Beginners review – a queer family’s fight to stay together

Housekeeping for Beginners review – a queer family’s fight to stay together

Each of Goran Stolevski’s films thus far has marked a departure from the last: the bewitching horrors of his debut You Won’t Be Alone; the acidic heartburn of his queer romance Of An Age; and now Housekeeping for Beginners, an amorphous family drama that marks the North Macedonian-born, Australian-raised director’s return to his home country.

Set in contemporary Skopje, Stolevski’s third feature follows a menagerie of queer misfits living, loving and fighting in a household which threatens to burst at the seams. His band of outcasts are bound together by survival – beneath their raucous capers, there’s the constant spectre of danger, peering through the curtains.

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Social worker Dita (Anamaria Marinca, from the Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) is the reluctant matriarch to a gang of urchins she has taken into her care. In these close quarters, bodies and egos bump up against each other again and again; commotion is this family’s default mode. The other residents include Dita’s partner, Suada (Alina Serban), a Romany woman who refuses treatment for her terminal cancer, jaded by a lifetime of racial ostracism, and Dita’s daughters: spiky teen Vanesa (Mia Mustafa) and her little sister Mia (Dzada Selim), whose doe eyes and gormless grin become ample weapons against the film’s anxieties.

We open on an interloper: the lovable scamp Ali (an impossibly charismatic debut from Samson Selim) overstaying his welcome after a one-night stand with the much older housemate Toni (Vladimir Tintor), a gay man who speaks almost solely in grunts. Ali hails from the same Romany community on the outskirts of Skopje as Suada and her children; soon, one night becomes two becomes a month. He clowns and charms his way around the house, wailing artless karaoke with Vanesa and Mia and springing down corridors, legs blurring with impish energy.

The antics are so clamorous that they almost conceal Suada’s impending demise. Her exit cleaves the film in half; in its aftermath, the shadow of grief colours the walls like the cigarette smoke always curling around the house. A plan hatched before Suada’s death is faithfully, sometimes farcically, executed: Dita and Toni, both queer, must marry to maintain the appearance of a nuclear clan, with Vanesa and Mia posing as their white offspring to evade the same discrimination that dogged their mother.

Leans into the absurdity of playing house … Goran Stolevski’s third feature.View image in fullscreen

Stolevski’s film-making is deft. He weaves a social consciousness into his narrative without retreating to mawkish parables of resistance and redemption. There’s far too much mayhem for that and any hints of sentiment are quickly subsumed by domestic disarray. All of his films share a certain editing sensibility: truncated exchanges and scenes interrupt each other without ever letting a thought curdle into cliche.

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Housekeeping for Beginners unfurls as a series of vignettes, which, at their best, lean into the absurdity of playing house. A dinner party with colleagues may as well be an expedition to outer space for Dita and Toni, who traverse the alien landscape of heteronormative conversation with fear and loathing. Their sham wedding is a gloriously camp affair with balloons and veils, cakes and bouquets; the deception only amplifies the glee.

These small rituals make the film’s conclusion – a hurtling descent into a darker, different movie – a touch contrived. But maybe that’s just the beauty of a safe house: there’s space for everything and everyone, even if it seems out of place.

  • Housekeeping for Beginners is out in Australian cinemas on Thursday and is available to stream in the US on Prime Video.