Housekeeping for Beginners

A health and welfare worker sits with another woman waiting for a doctor to get off a long, rambling personal call.  When another woman knocks and enters, saying her seriously ill sister’s been waiting for care for six hours, he rudely demands she get out and continue to wait.  His patient Suada (Alina Șerban), a fellow Roma, erupts at the doctor’s racism, overturning everything on his desk in her rage, while her companion Dita (Anamaria Marinca, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"), frets over one more delay in saving her lover from pancreatic cancer in “Housekeeping for Beginners.”

Laura's Review: B+

With his third film, Macedonian writer/director/editor Goran Stolevski ("You Won't Be Alone," "Of an Age") proves to be one of the most interesting new voices in cinema, his queer aesthetic an empathetic embrace of humanity with all its quirks and foibles.  His first film dealt both with motherhood and assuming different identities while his second was a gay love story and the effects of time and distance on romance.  His third, like his first selected to represent Macedonia for the International Oscar, combines elements of both and yet is completely different from the first two.

Director of photography Naum Doksevski’s (Stolevski's short "Would You Look at Her") handheld shooting accentuates the loving chaos that is Dita’s home in North Macedonia’s capitol of Skopje where gay and straight and white and Roma all live together while dreaming of bigger and better things.  Dita, who is white, takes a dim view of her newest lodger Ali (Samson Selim), a gay nineteen year-old from Shutka, the ‘Roma capitol of the world,’ picked up by her Roma friend Toni  (Vladimir Tintor) on a grinder-like website.  But when we first see Ali, he is getting along famously with Suada’s girls, fourteen year-old Vanessa (Mia Mustafa) and her much younger stepsister Mia (Džada Selim), the three enthusiastically singing along to a pop song, and the curly haired, blonde tipped Ali with his painted nails will turn out to be a major stabilizing force within the household.         

This becomes most apparent after Suada’s death, when Dita, who promised her lover she would be a mother to her girls, attempts to do so.  Mia misses her mother but has the resilience of the very young, but Vanessa, already rebellious, really begins to act out, physically violent at school and aggressively inappropriate at a party given by one of Dita’s work colleagues.  Dita has her own façade to attend to, having recently married the reluctant Toni in order to secure legal guardianship of the girls and Toni is in a jealous snit over a nude photo he thought was on Ali’s phone when it was actually on Vanessa’s, his violent outburst causing Ali to return to Shutka.

The contrast between life in Skopje, where Dita owns a large, modern home, and Shutka is so strong that Vanessa, having insisted she was going to live there with her grandmother Hava (Sanela Emin), glumly returns to Toni’s car at the end of her visit to what can only be described as a shanty town.  When she runs away again, it will be Ali who leads Dita and Toni to rescue her from the shady operation being run by her uncles Ferus (Sakip Muarem) and Dino (Nahmir Useini), a traumatic event that leads to the healing of multiple relationships.

Anamaria Marinca is the put upon, patient anchor here and the actress gives a beautifully grounded performance, supported by her ‘Greek chorus’ of teenaged girls Elena (Sara Klimoska), Teuta (Ajshe Useini) and Flora (Rozafë Çelaj), also part of this ragtag family.  Șerban may not be around for long, but she makes Suada’s shadow loom, the actress creating a bold and angry woman who dishes tough love to Vanessa while wondering in awe at the strangeness of her youngest.  It is Samson Selim who sums up the film’s themes though, responding to Mia’s questioning of Dita and Toni’s strange and conflicted marriage – ‘It’s a different kind of love,’ he tells her, assuring her that the bonds beneath Dita’s roof are strong despite some fraying. 

Focus Features opens "Housekeeping for Beginners" in select theaters on 4/5/24, wider on 4/12/24.