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‘Housekeeping for Beginners’ Review: A Delightful Dramatic Comedy About a Blended Family of Queer and Roma Outcasts

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Winner of the Queer Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival, where it premiered in the Horizons section, writer-director Goran Stolevski’s Housekeeping for Beginners (Domakinstvo za pocetnici) is a fizzy, huggable portrait of a self-made, roughly blended queer family.

Set in North Macedonia, where Stolevski was born and spent part of his childhood (he’s now mostly based in Australia), this naturalistic comedy-drama unfolds in a large house in the hills above the capital city Skopje, where social worker Dita (Anamaria Marinca, from 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) lives with her partner Sauda (Alina Serban), Sauda’s kids, their gay male friend Toni (Vladimir Tintor) and assorted waifs and strays. But when tragedy strikes, this makeshift family has to pull together to protect one another, which doesn’t come naturally for some of them. Already acquired by Focus and Universal before its debut, Housekeeping should find an audience easily thanks to its compelling, compassionate nature.

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Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
Cast: Anamaria Marinca, Alina Serban, Samson Selim, Mia Mustafa, Vladimir Tintor, Dzada Selim, Ajse Useini,
Aleksandra Pesevska, Rozafa Celaj, Sara Klimoska
Distribution: Focus Features/Universal
Director/screenwriter: Goran Stolevski
1 hour 47 minutes

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Thanks to backstory adeptly woven into the improvisational dialogue, we learn that Dita is ethnically Kosovar, which means she can “pass” in wider North Macedonian society more easily than quick-tempered Sauda, who is from a Roma background. (The Roma ethnic minority still faces racist prejudice throughout the Balkans.) The two women have set up house together in the home Dita inherited from her late parents, and live there with Sauda’s daughters, teenager Vanessa (Mia Mustafa) and six-year-old Mia (Dzada Selim, a total scene-stealer), as well as Toni, who brings a steady procession of temporary lovers in and out the door. There are also a couple of teen lesbians who’ve been thrown out of their own homes to whom Dita and Sauda have offered shelter. There’s a sense that a goodly portion of the local gay and Roma communities have crashed on the couches in the house at one point or another.

As the film opens, we meet the latest arrival to this menage, Ali (Samson Selim), a Roma youth who has just spent the night with Toni but who’s already proved a hit with little Mia, especially as he and the girls all share a taste for dancing to banging pop in the living room. While they’re rocking out, however, Sauda and Dita are getting the news that Sauda has terminal cancer and not long left. Well aware how vulnerable her children will be when she’s gone, she begs Dita and Toni to take care of them even though the two of them are not the most parentally inclined of people.

Although Sauda’s death casts an inevitable gloom over the story a third of the way in, Stolevski (who made last year’s Of an Age) wrings a surprising amount of comedy out of the situation. He demonstrates a sure touch with non-professional and younger actors, drawing out very accomplished performances, particularly from Selim as the flamboyant but warmhearted Ali. Similarly, the scenes among the Roma people feel authentic but not prettified, offering a glimpse of how rough life is in this oppressed community.

Still, there’s hope tolerance is growing based on one of the funniest interchanges in the film, when the characters come looking for an AWOL Ali and get nowhere when they ask people if they know him — until they say they’re looking for “gay Ali.” “Oh yeah, he’s in such and such a house,” is roughly the reply. It’s not much, but it’s a sign that attitudes are changing in Skopje, the Balkans and far beyond, even if there’s still a long way to go.  

Full credits

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
Cast: Anamaria Marinca, Alina Serban, Samson Selim, Mia Mustafa, VladimirTintor, Dzada Selim, Ajse Useini,
Aleksandra Pesevska, Rozafa Celaj, Sara Klimoska
Distribution: Focus Features/Universal
Production companies: List Production, Madants, Kinorama, Sense Production, Industria Film, Film i Vast, Common Ground Pictures, Causeway Films, Tango Entertainment, New Europe Film Sales, Adelaide Film Festival
Director/screenwriter/editor: Goran Stolevski
Producers: Marija Dimitrova, Klaudia Smieja-Rostworowska, Ankica Juric Tilic, Beata Rzezniczek, Milan Stojanovic, Blerta Basholli
Executive Producers: Tim Headington, Lia Buman, Ana Leocha, Marcin Luczaj, Jan Naszewski, Anthony Muir, Rebecka Beckman
Co-producers: Kristina Borjeson, Jonas Kellagher, Kristina Ceyton, Sam Jennings
Director of Photography: Naum Doksevski
Production designer: Anna Rzezniczek
Costume designer: Roza Trajceska Ristovska
Sound designer: Emma Bortignon
Music: Alen Sinkauz, Nenad Sinkauz
Casting: Milka Ancevska
Sales: New Europe Film Sales
1 hour 47 minutes

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