‘Housekeeping for Beginners’ Review: Goran Stolevski’s Queer Family Portrait Bursts Onto the Screen With Equal Parts Joy and Fury

Unorthodox family structures yield correspondingly unpredictable drama in “Housekeeping for Beginners,” a vital, febrile multi-character study that further confirms writer-director Goran Stolevski as a talent to be reckoned with. Departing radically from the poise of his folk-horror debut “You Won’t Be Alone” and the gentle intimacy of its swift follow-up “Of an Age,” this study of domestic, romantic and generational conflicts in a crowded queer household instead embraces a spirit of antic chaos, both in subject matter and jagged, hit-the-ground-running execution. Selected as North Macedonia’s international Oscar submission shortly after its premiere in Venice’s Horizons strand, the film has already been picked up by Focus Features for its Stateside release, which speaks to the crossover appeal of its offbeat but energizing storytelling.

Following the Melbourne-set “Of an Age,” “Housekeeping for Beginners” sees the Macedonian-born, Australia-based Stolevski returning to the motherland — not the historical back country of “You Won’t Be Alone,” but the bustling, unequal social landscape of contemporary Skopje, where put-upon healthcare worker Dita (Anamaria Marinca) shares her suburban house with an assortment of waifs and strays. Some residents are temporary: a carousel of young misfits who have been cast out of their own homes and found sanctuary in Dita’s patient, LGBT-friendly care.

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Others are fixtures, forming a modern family unit: Dita’s Roma girlfriend Suada (Alina Serban); sullen teen Vanesa (Mia Mustafa) and ball-of-fire kindergartener Mia (Dzada Selim), Suada’s two daughters from previous relationships; and Dita’s gay longtime pal Toni (Vladimir Tintor). Stolevski plunges audiences straight into into this topsy-turvy setup with little in the way of introduction or explanation, rightly trusting us to gather the characters’ connections and histories from the tenor of their chatter and the physicality of their interplay.

A restless pace is set from the get-go, as the film opens on the household’s younger members throwing themselves with vigor into a home karaoke session — DP Naum Doksevski’s very mobile camera darting and bouncing around the living room in time with the see-sawing Macedonian rock tune. The star singer is wiry, bleach-blond Roma twentysomething Ali (Samson Selim), a near-stranger hanging out after a one-night stand with middle-aged Toni. When Toni invites him to stay indefinitely, Dita is initially annoyed, but caves without resistance. In this already raucous, cluttered space of arguments and over-full ashtrays — where housekeeping, per the title, is a notional concept — what’s one more?

Especially when, all too soon, there will be one less: Suada is terminally ill, her condition rapidly worsening. She makes Dita promise to continue mothering Vanesa and Mia after she dies, while a reluctant Toni is enlisted to register as the girls’ legal father, protecting themselves from homophobic legalities. Looking after the adorable, eagerly affectionate Mia is one ask, but adopting Vanesa, her default spikiness only aggravated by grief, is quite another. Resentful of Dita’s comparatively privileged Kosovar background, the teen attempts fleeing to her grandmother’s home in the impoverished Roma municipality of Shutka; when she vengefully calls the authorities to claim she’s been kidnapped by a gay cult, Dita and Toni must swiftly snap into straight-acting mode.

Written in such linear fashion, the premise portends either a melodrama or a full-bore farce, but “Housekeeping for Beginners” is neither — beyond, at least, its sensitivity to equal degrees of melodrama and farce in everyday life. Stolevski’s lively, garrulous script may be plot-heavy, but the film isn’t propelled as much by grand narrative turns as it is by the powderkeg reactivity of its characters. Each scrap and squabble and occasional flash of understanding between them activates the film anew, so no interpersonal dynamic here ever feels comfortably settled. Everyone under Dita’s roof is an outsider, either socially, culturally or economically, who has had to fight for their place in the world; in a home founded entirely on the margins, allyship and solitary self-protection battle each other to a bloody draw.

A superb ensemble is fully alive to the funny, fractious possibilities of Stolevski’s writing, sometimes playing at different pitches but always believably in the same claustrophobic space. Marinca, seizing her best big-screen role since her debut in “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” anchors the collective with crumpled warmth, as Dita’s bottled-up reserves of anger and sorrow visibly chafe against her wearying obligation to be, at all times, the adult in the room. The superb Serban is her opposite number, violently impulsive and unguarded, and crucially missed when she exits proceedings. No part here is wasted or idly played: Even irresistible tyke Selim is button-cute but never cutesy, a full life and mind evident in her firework movements and off-on-her-own-beam responses.

The filmmaking is appropriately raw but far from careless, with Doksevski’s compositions kept consciously tight throughout, and human activity frequently spilling from the edge of the frame — a suitable visual tactic to convey a makeshift family of people forever stepping on each other’s toes. As in “Of an Age,” Stolevski again acts as his own editor, and judiciously so: Certain scenes are allowed to rove and wander to gradually revealing effect, but brisk, hard cuts also keep the the film’s multiple, agitated perspectives in play, and its energy compressed and carbonated. Like an unkempt home that is messy to the visitor’s eye, yet where the owner can find anything in a heartbeat, “Housekeeping for Beginners” is in full control of its disorder.

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