Goran Stolevski’s queer drama Housekeeping for Beginners is intimate yet elusive

A big messy Macedonian family, made up of queer and Romani outcasts, faces a heartbreaking decision in Goran Stolevski’s Housekeeping for Beginners. Luke Buckmaster says the performances resonate, but we don’t get an engaging bigger picture.

The third film from Macedonian-Australian director Goran Stolevski is a modest drama centred around a home in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, that’s become a refuge for a group of queer people of varying ages and circumstances. They’ve been brought together by a social worker named Dita (Anamaria Marinca) and share a family-like dynamic that’s chaotic, even before the introduction of the film’s MacGuffin: news that Dita’s partner Suada (Alina Serban), a Romani woman with two daughters—Vanesa (Mia Mustafa) and Mia (Džada Selim)—is terminally ill. The household also includes an older gay man, Toni (Vladimir Tintor), and his lovers.

Not that the term “MacGuffin”—an event or object that propels a plot forward—feels exactly right for Housekeeping for Beginners, given Stolevski’s verité inclinations and general shirking of conventions. Films insert viewers into windows of time sectioned off within the narrative world, with characters who existed before we arrived and will continue after we’re gone. That temporal open-endedness is particularly felt here, speaking to the film’s “window to the world” temperament and circuitous rhythms.

Just as the director avoids establishing shots, thrusting us into spaces without a firm explanation of place and context, his dialogue avoids helpful summarising statements; we’re expected to get our bearings ourselves. One early scene for instance transpires in the office of an irate doctor, whose rude and dismissive attitude to a desperate woman draws rancour from Vanesa; she asks whether his response would be different if the patient were “of pure race” and not “a gypsy.” This relates to characters living in “the gypsy capital of the world,” the community of Skopje located near to a large population of nomadic people, feeding into Stolevski’s commentary on class structures and discrimination.

Although, again, “commentary” isn’t a perfect fit with his approach, which is nuanced but frustratingly elusive—the director’s fear of didacticism perhaps leading him too far in the opposite direction. There’s a sense we’re expected to understand elements of a culture that for most of us is distant and unknown. A lot of information is picked up as we go along, however, and it doesn’t take long to settle into the film’s ebb and flow, which is unhurried by anybody’s definition, moved along by emotional currents that rise and swell following Suada’s passing. This affects the dynamic of the household and changes the nature of the characters’ lives.

The film’s homely aesthetics combine lots of browns and oranges in low-lit interiors. In contrast the camera bobs around excitedly, even agitatedly, as if it doesn’t quite know where to look or wants to be somewhere else. Handheld camerawork in a 4:3 aspect ratio has become a Stolevski trademark, present across his three features to date, which kicked off with You Won’t Be Alone—a brilliant horror movie matching his social realism instincts with cauldron-bubbling otherworldliness, telling a folkloric tale about a witch that possesses the bodies of various people and creatures. His second, Of an Age, is also great: a romantic youth-centered film, sweet in a tough-hearted way, that begins with urgency—a young woman (Hattie Hook) waking up on a beach, running terribly late to a dance competition.

Housekeeping for Beginners is Stolevski’s most intimate look at a family or family-like unit, but, for me, it’s his least engaging film by a long shot, with a tendency to build immersive moments at the expense of the broader picture. There’s no doubt the performances resonate: my favourite is from Mia Mustafa, a teenager with a burning glaze in her eyes, summing up every moment for potential injustices, and in this world finding many. Her presence raises the volume and turns up the heat. Most of the other performances are mellower, but you never quite know what the characters are capable of: like the film they can be gentle one moment and abrasive the next.