THE STORY – Dita never wanted to be a mother, but circumstances force her to raise her girlfriend’s two daughters: tiny troublemaker Mia and rebellious teen Vanesa.
THE CAST – Rozafa Celaj, Alina Serban, Mia Mustafa, Dzada Selim, Vladimir Tintor, Samson Selim, Sara Klimoska & Anamaria Marinca
THE TEAM – Goran Stolevski (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 107 Minutes
Goran Stolevski has certainly hit the ground running. His first and second films, “You Won’t Be Alone” and “Of An Age,” played at the same edition of the Melbourne Film Festival in 2022, with the latter being released worldwide earlier this year. Hot on their heels comes his third feature, “Housekeeping For Beginners,” a return to his birthplace of North Macedonia. Featuring Romani actors, many of whom are making their screen debuts, as well as LGBTQ characters, the film finds Stolevski digging into the country’s present-day issues in the style of kitchen-sink, social realist dramas. While it may start off as abrasive and even angry, the film eventually softens into another beautiful portrayal of empathy that cements Stolevski as one of the most humanistic filmmakers of his generation.
As they say, Dita (Anamaria Marinca) is going through it. She must be quiet at work (the government’s welfare office) to avoid attracting attention to not only her sexuality but the collection of stray young LGBTQ people she has living with her. Her home life is thrown into disarray when her Romani lover Suada (Alina Serban) is diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Forceful and clear-eyed, she begs Dita to take guardianship of her two daughters, teenaged Vanesa (Mia Mustafa) and kindergartener Mia (Dzada Selim), even pushing Dita to register her gay best friend Toni (Vladimir Tintor) – who has just brought his newest Romani lover Ali (Samson Selim) to live with him in Dita’s already overcrowded house – as the girls’ father if that’s what it takes. After her mother’s death, Vanesa grows even more sullen, acting out and threatening to escape with her supposed boyfriend. Can Dita keep her makeshift family together without arousing suspicion of the authorities?
Driven by Serban’s forceful energy, the opening act starts the film off on an abrasive note that could potentially push viewers away. While the character’s palpable frustration at both her medical condition and the systems that have been built to exclude her and her people is understandable, it’s hard to imagine why she would ever have been in a romantic relationship with the extremely reserved Dita. We are then dropped into the chaos of Dita’s house without any explanation of who’s who or what their relationship is with each other, which only exacerbates the confusion. But Serban nails the shift in tone required when Suada is alone with Dita and explains what she wants to happen when she dies, and the film follows her lead. After that rowdy opening, everything settles down, and we can connect with the characters as they deal with this life-altering loss. Vivid and vibrant, the performers bring such personality to their characters that falling in love with them is easy. Before long, you feel like a part of this family of misfit toys, hoping against hope that they will stay together and survive all the obstacles stacked against them.
Marinca acts as a stalwart anchor at the center of the chaos, giving a performance that charts Dita’s slowly rising frustration with pinpoint precision. While she may be mostly silent in the early going, everybody listens when she speaks because it’s clear that she has something important to say. With or without dialogue, Marinca’s emotive face unflinchingly shows all the emotions Dita feels, giving the audience a direct line to her heart. As the newest member of the household, Samson Selim is a star in the making. Ali stands out the most in a cast filled with bright supporting characters thanks to Selim’s infectiously energetic screen presence. In some ways, Vanesa is the trickiest character to pull off, the already mercurial feelings of teenage girls heightened by her situation. Mustafa pulls it off with ease, with an inner light so powerful that we want to see her rise out of the funk she’s in. The casting of Romani performers would be cause for celebration in and of itself, but the fact that they’re all so natural on camera and give such deeply felt performances makes the film that much more special.
Corralling this many characters, each with their own conflicting agendas and marginalized statuses, would be too big of a job for many filmmakers, but Stolevski is up to the task. While the sheer number of characters and plot points initially threatens to overrun the film’s messaging about empathy and equality for all, the more Stolevski adds to his plate, the more immersive the film becomes. Each new complication to the story deepens the world of our characters, allowing us to understand them and their world more fully. The film understands how empathy works, showing us how the characters act and why they act that way. A pivotal mid-film visit to the Roma village of Shutka tells us everything we need to know about why Suada and Ali had to get out and why going back there would leave Vanesa far worse off than she is now. The film’s unflinching social realism gives each scene an immediacy that keeps the slightly sprawling story from getting too out of hand, with Naum Dokevski’s handheld camera lending a documentary-like feel heightened by the honest, grounded work of the cast. The film ends somewhat abruptly after its emotional climax, but that doesn’t rob the film of its power, sending the audience back out into the world thinking about these characters, their beautiful bond with each other, and how so many in the world would rather people like them didn’t exist at all. “Housekeeping for Beginners” may be a bit messy in the details, but that messiness perfectly reflects the lives of its characters, making for compelling, heart-rending viewing.