Housekeeping for Beginners Review | A Hole in the Soul

by Andrew Parker

Well intentioned, but ultimately self-defeating, the queer family custody drama Housekeeping for Beginners tries to look at a well known, melodramatic plot from a different perspective, but ends up doing curiously little with it. Last year’s selection for Best International Feature Oscar contention from North Macedonia, Housekeeping for Beginners taps into a wealth of cultural and sexual identities and customs, but forgets to build characters around them. It’s a film of big ideas and tropes designed to pull at the heartstrings, but few ways of pulling them all together into a satisfying and coherent package.

Dita (Anamaria Marinca) is a welfare office worker who’s going through the roughest patch of her life. Her Roma girlfriend, Suada (Alina ?erban), has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and although treatment could relieve some of the pain, the prognosis is bleak. As her dying wish, Suada begs Dita to become guardian of her two daughters, teenage rebel Vanesa (Mia Mustafi) and much younger and more impressionable Mia (Džada Selim). Such a request is easier said that done, especially for queer people in North Macedonia, who have fewer legal rights and are often forced into staying firmly in the closet. Before she passes away, Suada asks Vanesa and Mia to recognize her equally gay male roommate, Toni (Vladimir Tintor), as their father and Dita as their mom. It doesn’t go over well, and the thrown together family has to deftly navigate being discovered and learning to deal with each other’s vastly different personalities and passions.

Housekeeping for Beginners is the latest film from writer-director Goran Stolevski, who has slowly made a name for himself off the likes of under-the-radar art house favourites Of an Age and You Won’t Be Alone, and through his works viewers can see further steps towards making mainstream entertainment. There have been plenty of tearjerkers made over the years surrounding straight people suddenly becoming parental figures for kids throughout the years, so the idea of a queer coded flipping of such a script set in a location and culture where it’s inherently dangerous to be out and proud is a good one. But Stolevski focuses so rigorously on making Housekeeping for Beginners look verite and getting the nuts and bolts details of its story right that it forget to allow the characters to have lives and thoughts of their own. It also curiously lacks the passion necessary to depict a fight against a larger, bigoted, homophobic system.

The decision to focus so intently on the character of Dita is the biggest misfire here. By design, Dita always comes across as an outsider in world she can never fully understand, but instead of making a film where the viewer can see someone coming around to a more common ground with the kids and those around her, Stolevski makes the poor decision to cast the character as an emotionless stoic who has the same level of passion at the beginning of the film as they do at the end. Outside of her job and love for Suada, we never find out a single relevant thing about Dita or how she feels. Worse yet, Stolevski’s manipulative streak – which exists in a bid to probably make this more mainstream accessible – makes a credible case that Dita has been guilted into taking care of kids by a somewhat abusive partner. The emotional bedrock of Housekeeping for Beginners is as shaky and unstable as Stolevski’s penchant for jittery camerawork.

As for the other major characters, the one that strangely garners the most audience sympathy and interest is Ali (Samson Selim), a one-night-stand hook-up of Toni’s that ends up sticking around because he has no place else to go and is willing to help out around the house. That character works not only because he’s the most pure hearted person there, but also because his befuddlement makes him an audience surrogate. In fact, by the end of the film, we’ve learned so much more about how rich and interesting of a person Ali is that it puts almost the entirety of the A-story to shame. Mustafi gives a very good performance as the tough talking, fight picking teen, but Vanesa is still written as a very basic, sullen youngster. Tintor’s imposed upon Toni is fascinating, but by nature the character is too flighty to stick around for long periods at a time. 

And if the shameless jabbing of the tear ducts through the actions of wafer thin characters isn’t enough, then the pacing of Housekeeping for Beginners only sinks things further. Stolevski handles weeks, months, and years of love, heartbreak, and struggle as if it were a foot race. Housekeeping for Beginners plays less like a full bodied narrative and more like a filmed outline with a few completed scenes on the side. It’s a well meaning piece of queer cinema that falls to many of the mistakes made in similar custody and blended family dramas before it. It’s a film that’s trying very hard to tell the viewer how to feel with all of its loudly pitched arguments, tearful confessions, and heart-skipping near misses, but it forgets to point them in the direction of a point. Viewers should feel something more than just devastated by Housekeeping for Beginners, but what those emotions should be remain frustratingly out of reach.

Housekeeping for Beginners opens in select Canadian cities on Friday, April 12, 2024.

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