‘Woman! No filthy words!’
So says Mia (Dzada Selim), the tiny emperor of a queerly beloved household held tight in a cinema verité hug in Of An Age director Goran Stolevski’s luminous tribute to found family, Housekeeping for Beginners.
The youngest daughter of Suada (a mighty turn from Alina Serban) and the little in stature, if not presence, sister of Vanessa (Mia Mustafa, one to watch), she is a Ferris wheelspin of anarchically effervescent energy and will not stand for potty-mouthed insults at the dinner table. Alas, for Mia’s sweet if forthright sensibility, the filthy words fly with gay abandon in this bittersweet ode to a broader understanding of love.
With an air of Armistead Maupin’s Barbary Lane in the Tales of the City novels, this bursting-at-the-seams suburban home in Skopje, the capital city of North Macedonia – Melbourne-based Stolevski’s birth country – contains multitudes.
Beyond the Roma family at its heart, outlined above, we also meet Dita, played by Anamaria Marinca, the ‘wolf-eateress’ of Stolevski’s mesmeric folk horror You Won’t Be Alone. She’s technically Suada’s social worker, but has blurred professional boundaries, crossing business with pleasure in moving her in. Then there’s Toni (Vladimir Tintor), Dita’s perma-stubbled and ruffled best mate, a taciturn man of few words and even fewer smiles whose latest Grindr conquest, 19-year-old Roma man Ali (the sparkling Samson Selim) has purposefully forgotten to leave.
A flashpoint in the opening sequence, neither an icily disapproving Dita nor a ready-to-blow Suada is impressed that Toni has left him in charge of Mia and Vanessa, issuing death stares a plenty. But just as it seems Dita is about to kick him out if not follow through on her threat to call the cops, she catches sight of his trembling hands, nails painted glittering pink by Mia. As she clasps them in hers, this tender moment’s grace, unspoken, signals that he has nowhere else to go, and she won’t see him homeless.
With Ali having ditched the rambling streets of city’s edge Roma community Shutka for unspecified reasons, it’s a credit to Stolevski’s deft screenplay that the films never info-dumps, instead parcelling out only what we need in naturalistic dialogue, paired with his remarkable gift for eliciting similarly lived-in performances across three features in rapid succession.
Ali is folded into the surfeit of swear dinners alongside a fantastically snarky chorus in Sara Klimoska’s Elena, Rozafa Celaj’s Teuta, and Ajshe Useini’s Flora, each excelling in smaller roles in an abundantly generous film that shares the love around, adeptly edited by Stolevski himself.
Before long, you’ll want to move in too and throwdown to the glorious tune of Balkan pop bangers this happy chosen family intermittently holler along with.
For all the joy on show in this magnificent Venice Film Festival Queer Lion Award-winner, which enjoyed its Australian premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival, there’s a creeping sense of unease scratching under the rambunctious surface.
An early hospital scene confronts Dita and Suada with the harsh realities of a troubling medical diagnosis in the face of the too-busy-talking-about-football doctor’s casually sneering anti-Roma bigotry. If Suada’s tough enough to suck this up, then her dickhead shield spectacularly drops when he turns his contempt on a Roma woman who pushes into his office seeking help, leading to a dramatic rearranging of his desktop.
Dita isn’t best pleased that they now need a new doctor and cannot keep herself from doomscrolling Google-searched health advice at the dinner table, until Suada hurls her laptop over the balcony. Dashing Dita’s dreams that her traditional Kosovar tea concoctions – variously described as tasting like pig’s balls and an ashtray – will save the day, pretty soon their stolen conversations turn to what happens if Suada checks out.
Resisting this worst-case reality, Dita’s nevertheless cognizant that a B-plan is required in a country where LGBTQIA+ relationships are not legally recognised and the community faces open hostility, as do Roma kids.
In the shadow of death, life continues to teem in this tightknit home, illuminated by gifted cinematographer Naum Doksevski as if just another resident in this hectic home.
Vanessa’s burgeoning sexuality charged with cranky teenage rebellion will lead to fractious fisticuffs by way of Chekhov’s iPhone cover and the threat of a thread pulled unravelling (look out for a hilarious sorta cameo by Stolevski).
Ali increasingly assumes a playfully paternal energy with Mia (they’re real-life father and daughter, and they glow onscreen together), while Toni can’t quite wrap his head around settling down with the younger man whilst also being pushed and prodded to assume, by dubious means, legal guardianship over Vanessa and Mia.
It’s a hot mess in the very best way, and when all of this does, eventually, lead to an unlikely union, Ali’s assurance to Mia that love between a gay man and his lesbian best friend might just be the strongest, most enduring love of all is a radiant beam in a film full of refracted light spun into a rainbow.
Housekeeping for Beginners showed as part of the 2023 Adelaide Film Festival. It is released nationally in Australian cinemas in 2024.