Review: Housekeeping for Beginners Offers an Intimate Glimpse of a Chosen Family

Seemingly determined never to repeat himself, writer/director Goran Stolevski (You Won't Be Alone, Of An Age) returns to his homeland of Macedonia to tell the tale of a group of mostly Roma characters (although they have no issues calling themselves Gypsies, perhaps in an effort to reclaim or redefine the word), all of whom live together though most of them aren’t related. Even still, Housekeeping for Beginners is an essential film in the discussion about selecting your own family rather than settling for the one you were born into.

The story begins on Suada (Alina Serban), a mother of two girls—the teenage rebel Vanesa (Mia Mustafa) and the younger troublemaker Mia (Džada Selim). They all live with Suada’s female partner Dita (the solemn Anamaria Marinca), who is seemingly the only practical one living in the household. Also cohabitating is her gay friend Toni (Vladimir Tintor), who frequently brings younger men home to have sex with, some of whom end up staying the apartment they all share for days on end. One such plaything is Ali (a standout Samson Selim), a bit of a hustler but great with the younger kids and a confidante to others. As the film opens, Suada is given a cancer diagnosis and not long to live, and she makes Dita promise to not only take care of her kids but actually adopt them after she’s gone, which she reluctantly agrees to do (although Suada “persuades” her by opening her veins until Dita says yes).

The backdrop of the day-to-day struggles of this family—ranging from money shortages to health issues and the two girls being furious at their mother for dying and lashing out at Dita—is that Roma people are overtly discriminated against in this area of North Macedonia. But through it all, we get the impression they understand that they will survive if they stick together and work out these clashing wills. Ali somehow manages to get authentic (albeit faked) birth certificates for the girls saying Dita is their mother and Toni is their father. To make sure the authorities don’t question the relationships, Dita and Toni get married in one of the funniest and most awkward ceremonies you’ll likely see this year.

Vanesa becomes the true family disruptor as she runs away from home or calls the police to report that she’s been kidnapped—actions that mirror some of her mother’s extreme, emotion-filled behavior that might be viewed as self-destructive mental illness in any other situation. But through all of it, small victories within this makeshift family emerge gradually, and things actually begin to look hopeful as everyone struggles to keep things together. By simply placing his camera in the middle of a room or family conflict and tracking the elevated conversation, filmmaker Stolevski pulls us into the drama and makes us one of them. The emotions, violence, humor and warmth all come through beautifully, without an ounce of sentimentality, making everything that transpires believable and heartfelt and making the film one of the better ones I’ve seen so far this year.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.