Housekeeping for Beginners

Three films into his feature career, 'You Won’t Be Alone' and 'Of an Age' writer/director Goran Stolevski adds this absorbing drama about a queer family to his already-impressive resume.
Sarah Ward
Published on May 09, 2024


Every film is a portrait of ups and downs, no matter the genre. Without change and complications, plus either a sprinkling or a shower of chaos, there's little in the way of story for a movie to tell. In just three features, each hitting cinemas Down Under in successive years since 2022, Macedonian Australian filmmaker Goran Stolevski has demonstrated how deeply he understands this fact — and also that life itself is, of course, the same rollercoaster ride. So, when Housekeeping for Beginners starts by jumping between a joyous sing-along and a grim doctor's visit, he lays that juxtaposition between existence's highs and the lows bare in his third picture's frames. He has form: You Won't Be Alone, his folkloric horror film set in 19th-century Macedonia, segued early from new life to a witch's fate-shaping demands; Of an Age, a queer love story that unfurls in Melbourne, kicked off by flitting between dancing and a desperate against-the-clock rush.

In You Won't Be Alone, the shapeshifting Wolf-Eateress who chose an infant to be her protege was played by Anamaria Marinca, the Romanian actor who has proven an unforgettable screen presence ever since the one-two punch of 2004's TV two-parter Sex Traffic — which won her a Best Actress BAFTA — and 2007's Cannes Palme d'Or-winning film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Stolevski reenlists her assistance for Housekeeping for Beginners, and also illustrates his awareness of another immutable fact: that the eyes of Anamaria Marinca relay tales all by themselves. Here, they're weary but sharp and determined. They're devoted yet fierce, too. They possess the unrelenting gaze of someone who won't stop fighting for those she loves no matter what it takes, and regardless of how she initially reacts, a path that her social-worker character Dita is no stranger to traversing.

That aforementioned crooning comes courtesy of precocious five-year-old Mia (newcomer Džada Selim), her rebellious teenage sister Vanesa (fellow debutant Mia Mustafa) and the charming Ali (Samson Selim, another first-timer), the young man who newly shares their Skopje abode. Everyone, including Vanesa and Mia's mother Suada (Alina Șerban, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn), dwells under Marinca's Dita's roof — with the latter not just cohabitating with her girlfriend and her kids, but turning the house that she inherited into a refuge for those that North Macedonian society frowns upon. Ali is the latest lover of Dita's longterm gay roommate and friend Toni (Vladimir Tintor, Kumovi), hanging around after an app hookup. Young lesbians Elena (Sara Klimoska, Tin Kamp), Flora (Rozafë Celaj, Sophia) and Teuta (Ajshe Useini, yet another newcomer) also call the spot home.

Being queer isn't a criminal offence in Housekeeping for Beginners' setting, but both same-sex marriage and adopting children by LGBTQIA+ couples are illegal. In the country's class system, being anything but Macedonian is also hardly greeted with warmth; Dita is Albanian, while Suada, her children and Ali are Romani. This motley crew is navigating each and every day the best that they can together; however, their safe space has grief in its future. It's Suada and Dita who attend the medical appointment at the movie's start, with Suada diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer. Her one wish: that Dita adopt her girls, and also get married to and play happy families with Toni, who is Macedonian, so that Mia and Vanesa will be free of the stigma that Suada has always had to weather as a Roma woman.

Stolevski is a plunge-in director — and screenwriter and editor, again taking on all three roles on Housekeeping for Beginners as he did on Of an Age. He dives into lives already in action and motion, crafting films that feel like they're dropping in. Ups and downs have preceded the events that his movies spin into their plots, then, and more will follow after his flicks tap out. Accordingly, he isn't one to spoon-feed specifics and context. The dynamics between his characters in Housekeeping for Beginners are revealed to audiences naturally, as are the setbacks and discrimination they encounter, often as viewers spend time in Dita's always-noisy, always-bustling home. While this isn't a one-location picture — Šutka, the Skopje municipality that's the world's only local administrative area with Balkan Romani as its official language, also features heavily — it is a film where observing its key figures in surroundings both comforting and challenging conveys as much as dialogue.

Putting Marinca at the fore, a mix of grace and intensity beaming from her performance as Dita, was always going to rank among Stolevski's best choices in a feature filmmaking career that's already filled with stellar casting (see: Constellation's Noomi Rapace, Bad Behaviour's Alice Englert and Elite's Carloto Cotta in You Won't Be Alone; and also Swift Street's Elias Anton, Eden's Thom Green and Savage River's Hattie Hook in Of an Age). He's also a detail-driven director, making emotions and complexities plain in decisions as simple as the arrangement of people at a wedding and where the camera peers (or doesn't) when someone is speaking. And, again and again, he guides portrayals to match. From Șerban, he gets blistering power, with Suada explosive from the moment that she questions whether her medical treatment is being shaped by her ethnicity. Džada Selim, Samson Selim and Mustafa are all discoveries, too, breathing realism and vitality into the movie's youngest hearts and minds.

Roving and intimate cinematography from Naum Doksevski (Sestri) also ensures that watching Housekeeping for Beginners feels akin to stepping inside it — and pondering the same questions that Dita, Suada, Toni, Ali and company each are. As the film that was selected as North Macedonia's Oscar contender in 2024's Best International Feature category (The Zone of Interest won) rides just a sliver of the ups and downs that its characters will face in their days, albeit significant ones, it gets them examining what comprises a family. There might be no such thing as a smooth-sailing journey from birth to death, or a surefire way to avoid heartbreak and loss, for anyone. There certainly isn't within Housekeeping for Beginners, which can also skew darkly comic when it comes to the bureaucratic hoops that require jumping through. But as Stolevski charts in his third movie about yearning for a place to belong, it's the people that you share those travails with day in and day out that makes a household.


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