Review: ‘Housekeeping for Beginners,’ starring Anamaria Marinca, Alina Șerban, Samson Selim, Vladimir Tintor, Mia Mustafi and Dżada Selim

April 2, 2024

by Carla Hay

Samson Selim, Vladimir Tintor, Anamaria Marinca and Sara Klimoska in “Housekeeping for Beginners” (Photo by Viktor Irvin Ivanov/Focus Features)

“Housekeeping for Beginners”

Directed by Goran Stolevski

Macedonian, Albanian and Romani with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Skopje, North Macedonia, the dramatic film “Housekeeping for Beginners” features a white and Romani cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A social worker, who is a closeted lesbian and is the head of a household of other LGBTQ adults, tries to find a way to keep her “found family” together after she has to raise the two underage daughters of her deceased lover.

Culture Audience: “Housekeeping for Beginners” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching well-acted dramas about “found families” with mostly LGBTQ people as the main characters.

Mia Mustafa in “Housekeeping for Beginners” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“Housekeeping for Beginners” is a “slice of life” film that doesn’t pretend to have all the answers about family life. Filled with emotions that are raw, tender and often repressed, this unusual drama offers a realistic look at a “found family” of LGBTQ people in North Macedonia. The mostly improvised acting performances are stellar, even when the story sometimes wanders.

Written and directed by Goran Stolevski (a filmmaker who is originally from North Macedonia and currently lives in Australia), “Housekeeping for Beginners” had its world premiere at the 2023 Venice International Film Festival, where it won the Queer Lion Award, a prize for LGBTQ movies. “Housekeeping for Beginners” was also North Macedonia’s offical selection for the Best International Feature Film category for the 2024 Academy Awards.

In “Housekeeping for Beginners” (which takes place in Skopje, North Macedonia), a social worker named Dita (played by Anamaria Marinca) is the head of her household. Dita is also a closeted lesbian to almost everyone outside of her household, which has become a safe haven for other LGBTQ people who have been rejected by their biological families. Dita is generous enough to not charge rent to any of the adults in her household.

In the beginning of the movie, there are eight people living in the household, and they will soon be joined by a ninth person. Dita (who is usually calm and level-headed) is living with her lover Suada (played by Alina Șerban), who has an acerbic and sometimes volatile personality. Suada has two daughters from two different deadbeat dads: daughter Vanesa (played by Mia Mustafi) is about 16 or 17 years old, while daughter Mia (played by Dżada Selim) is about 5 or 6 years old.

It’s later mentioned in the movie that the father of Vanesa was a drug addict who died of an overdose. Mia’s father is a drug dealer with a prison record and has not been involved in Mia’s life at all. Dita (whose father is a member of North Macedonia’s Parliament) met Suada because Suada was part of a social worker case that Dita had. Dita (who is originally from the low-income Shutka neighborhood) and her children are Roma. These differences in ethnicities and social classes are often issues in their family.

Also in the household is Dita’s longtime friend Toni (played by Vladimir Tintor), who is openly gay and who works as a medical assistant in a hospital. There are also three queer young women living in the household: Elena (played by Sara Klimoska), Teuta (played by Ajshe Useini) and Flora (played by Rozafë Çelaj), whose personalities are somewhat vague in this movie. It’s a house filled with camaraderie, love and the usual family tensions. But within a short period of time, things will drastically change.

The household gets an unexpected addition in the beginning of the movie: a 19 year-old gay Roma man named Ali (played by Samson Selim, who is Dżada Selim’s father in real life), who spent the night with Toni and doesn’t want to leave. Toni and Ali met on a gay dating app. Mia takes an instant liking to Ali. However, Dita and Suada are very wary of Ali because they meet him under awkward circumstances when Toni left Ali to look after Suada’s daughters.

Suada has pancreatic cancer, which has reached the terminal stage. Dita doesn’t see herself as a maternal type, but Suada insists that Dita take care of Vanesa and Mia after Suada dies. Suada’s death (which is already revealed in the “Housekeeping for Beginners” trailer) happens about 35 minutes into this 107-minute movie.

Complicating matters, North Macedonia does not have laws that allow same-sex marriages or openly gay people to adopt children . Dita is determined to keep her promise to Suada to have the family stay together, so Dita goes to extreme lengths to do it, including coming up with the idea to have Toni marry her. Meanwhile, Vanesa starts to rebel and threatens to run away from home.

“Housekeeping for Beginners” shows the emotional fallout of this pressure-cooker situation, as various family members experience grief and discontent over their lives. The movie doesn’t get preachy about discrimination against LGBTQ people, but it shows in unflinching ways how this discrimination can damage people and relationships. “Housekeeping for Beginners” is at its best when it demonstrates how family plays an important role in shaping people’s identities and loyalties, but family does not have to be defined by biology.

Focus Features will release “Housekeeping for Beginners” in select U.S. cinemas on April 5, 2024.

Review: ‘Of an Age,’ starring Elias Anton and Thom Green

February 20, 2023

by Carla Hay

Hattie Hook, Thom Green and Elias Anton in “Of an Age” (Photo by Ben King/Focus Features)

“Of an Age”

Directed by Goran Stolevski

Some language in Serbian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Melbourne, Australia, in 1999 and 2010, the dramatic film “Of an Age” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few people of South Asian heritage) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: At 17 years old, a semi-closeted gay guy quickly falls for the older, openly gay brother of his female best friend, but this would-be romance is cut short because the brother is moving to South America the next day, and then the two men unexpectedly see each other again 11 years later.

Culture Audience: “Of an Age” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching LGBTQ love stories and movies about love, loss and possibly rekindled romances.

Elias Anton and Thom Green in “Of an Age” (Photo by Thuy Vy/Focus Features)

“Of an Age” is a compelling character study of love connections and the importance of timing in order for a relationship to grow. Elias Anton and Thom Green give memorable performances, but some viewers might not like how parts of the story remain untold. It’s a story that doesn’t fit a certain formula of what many people might expect in romantic dramas because of how the movie is structured. However, this unpredictability is the movie’s strength. By not following clichés, “Of an Age” offers something closer to real life than what most fictional movies about romance have to offer.

Written and directed by Goran Stolevski, “Of an Age” is a big departure from his previous film: the 2022 moody horror film “You Won’t Be Alone,” set in 19th century Macedonia, about a cursed woman who inhabits the bodies of various beings, while the witch who cursed her as a baby follows her to make sure that she does not experience love. In “Of an Age” (which takes place in 1999 and 2010 in Melbourne, Australia, where the movie was filmed), the protagonist is haunted by another type of curse: homophobia. This homophobia is the root cause of his shame about being gay, and it’s deprived him of having a love life up until he meets a man who gives him a liberating perspective. This perspective changes his attitude about his self-acceptance, his sexuality, and how honest he wants to be about himself to the people around him.

“Of an Age” begins on New Year’s Day 2010, when a gloomy-looking Nikola “Kol” Denić (played by Anton) makes a phone call to someone Ebony, who isn’t home, but the phone is answered by a woman who sounds like she lives with Ebony. Kol (whose nickname is pronounced “Cole”) is hesitant about this phone call. He tells the woman who answers the phone: “I was just thinking about her … I wasn’t thinking about her. Sorry.” He hangs up and takes a swig from a liquor bottle. Viewers later find out that January 1 is Kol’s birthday.

“Of An Age,” which is told in two parts, then flashes back to Part One of the story, which takes place over the course of 24 hours in December 1999. Part Two of the story takes place over a few days in 2010, about five months after Kol has made that mournful phone call. The movie has a non-traditional structure because Part One gets the majority (about 70%) of the movie’s screen time, whereas most two-part movies would be structured so that each of the two parts would get about the same amount of screen time.

In Part One of “Of an Age,” Kol is a 17-year-old aspiring dancer who is getting ready for the most important dance competition of his life so far: The Year 12 Ballroom Finals for an unnamed national Australian dance contest. His dance partner is his best friend Ebony Donegal (played by Hattie Hook), who has recently graduated from the same high school class as Kol. Ebony and Kol live in a working-class part of North Melbourne. Ebony is outgoing and rebellious. Kol is introverted and likes to play by the rules.

Ebony is also flaky and very temperamental. The movie shows that she has woken up on a beach, after a night of drug-induced partying with a male stranger she met the night before. Ebony has no idea where she is, and she barely remembers what happened the previous nught, but she knows that the dance competition starts in a few hours at the City Center in Melbourne. She desperately needs a way to get there in time.

After making some frantic phone calls and inquiries about where she is, Ebony has a meltdown when she calls Kol. She begs, cries and screams for him to come pick her up. Ebony—an aspiring actress who wants to go to the National Institute of Dramatic Arts—has a love/hate relationship with her single mother Fay (played by Verity Higgins), and refuses to call her mother for help. Ebony is often rude and demanding to the people close to her, but Kol puts up with it because Ebony is his only friend.

The problem with Ebony wanting Kol to give her car ride back home is that Kol doesn’t have access to a car. And he finds out that Ebony is too far away for him to pick her up and drive them to the dance contest in time. Ebony still needs a ride back home, so Kol enlists the help of Ebony’s visiting older brother Adam Donegal (played by Green), who has a car and meets Kol for the first time during this trip to pick up Ebony, who is disheveled, an emotional wreck, and quite the shrieking drama queen.

Even though there’s little to no chance that Ebony and Kol will make it in time to the competition, Ebony asks Kol to get her ballroom dance dress at the house that she shares with a friend named Jaya (played by Senuri Chandrani), who immediately picks up on the fact that Kol is gay, even though he’s not ready to admit it to anyone yet. When Jaya calls him “gay,” Kol acts slightly offended, but he’s really just embarrassed that Jaya has figured out his secret.

During the car drive to pick up Ebony in the rural area where she is, Adam and Kol have a sarcasm-fueled conversation that will change their lives. Adam is in his mid-20s and highly educated. He graduated from the University of Melbourne with a master’s degree in linguistics. As an undergrad, he majored in Spanish. And he’s about to get his Ph. D. degree.

Kol wants to impress this older man, so he tries to make Adam think that Kol is sophisticated. Even though the production notes for “Of an Age” say that Kol is 17, in the movie, Kol tells Adam that he is 18 and will turn 19 in a few weeks. Adam mentions early on in the conversation that he really likes South America. Adam is playing music from an Argentinian movie soundtrack in the car, so Kol pretends that he likes Argentinian movies too. When the subject turns to literature, Kol tells Adam that he has been reading the work of Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentinian short story writer.

However, Kol shows that he’s not very sophisticated at all when he mispronounces the name of supermodel Gisele Bündchen. Kol mispronounces her first name as “Jizzelly.” Bündchen’s name comes up when Adam says he chose Spanish as a major because he likes “South Americans—they’re just hotter.” Kol agrees and responds by saying (and mispronouncing) that South Americans are hot “like Gisele.” (Bündchen is from Brazil, where the national language is Portuguese, not Spanish.) At this point, Kol might be testing Adam’s reaction to see if Adam believes that Kol is sexually attracted to women. Adam doesn’t look entirely convinced.

Adam rolls and smokes a marijuana cigarette while driving. He offers a puff to Kol, who politely declines and says that he doesn’t smoke. Adam says of the dismal economic prospects of their working-class community: “You’re a good boy. Good boys make it out.” Later, when Adam asks Kol what his favorite book is, Kol says it’s Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” while Adam says his favorite book is Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano.” Their choices in books say a lot about their personalities.

During this conversation that becomes increasingly filled with sexual tension and romantic attraction, Kol opens up about his family. He tells Adam that he and his family are originally from Serbia. They moved to Australia in 1991, “because of the war,” and Kol’s father died in 1994. Kol lives with Kol’s widowed mother, Kol’s aunt (played by Donna Dimovski Kantarovski) and Kol’s uncle (played by Slobodan Andonoski). Kol says of his home life: “I’m waiting for my uncle to die. He’s a psycho.” Later in the movie, Kol says he rarely sees his mother (played by Milijana Čančar), because she’s busy working at three different jobs.

At one point in the conversation in the car, Adam mentions having an “ex,” but he doesn’t say what gender the ex is. Not long after that, Adam says that a box of music cassette tapes and some other stuff in the back of the car belong to this ex-lover. When Kol accidentally knocks over the box of cassettes, Kol says, “Your ex is going to kill me.” Adam casually says, “He won’t.” It’s at that moment that Kol finds out that Adam is gay.

This revelation and the majority of the movie’s plot is shown in the trailer for “Of an Age.” It’s later revealed that Adam is the first openly gay man whom Kol has ever met. It scares Kol but also excites him because he and Adam have a mutual attraction that they cannot ignore. And then (as revealed in the movie’s trailer), Adam tells Kol that this is his last day in Australia, because he’s moving to South American to get his Ph.D. degree.

Over the next 24 hours, Kol and Adam act on their connection before saying a bittersweet and tearful goodbye. The connection between them is so strong, that they both instinctively know that they could have had a soul-mate romance if circumstances had not prevented them from being together. The “what ifs” about their would-be relationship will affect them for years to come.

The trailer for “Of an Age” already shows that after not seeing each other for years, Kol and Adam happen to end up in the same airport baggage claim area. This is in Part Two of the movie, which takes place in 2010. The movie trailer also shows that they have both arrived in Melbourne because of Ebony’s wedding. And it’s obvious that Kol and Adam are still very much attracted to each other.

What isn’t revealed in the trailer is what Kol and Adam will do about this attraction. Adam and Kol catch up on each other’s lives, as they tell each other what they’ve been doing in the 11 years since they saw each other. However, one of them has a big secret that will have an effect on any possible reunion. Because the trailer of “Of an Age” gives so much of the plot away, the only real question that viewers who’ve seen the trailer will have is: “Will Adam and Kol rekindle what they started 11 years ago?”

“Of An Age” would not be as emotionally touching if not for the stellar performances of Anton and Green, who both authentically portray the heartbreaking reality that sometimes true love can be found quickly but lost just as quickly. Adam is Kol’s first experience with romantic love as Kol’s true self. And so, it’s been harder for Kol to recover from this separation. That doesn’t mean Adam doesn’t care, but Adam had more dating experience than Kol at the time they met and shared this intense connection.

The movie gives vivid portrayals of the personalities of Adam and Kol. However, some viewers might be bothered by the 11-year gap in time that isn’t fully explained except in brief conversations between Adam and Kol when they see each other again in 2010. It’s also a little hard to believe that talkative loudmouth Ebony wouldn’t have told Adam ahead of time that Kol was going to the wedding. When Kol and Adam see each other at the airport, they are very surprised. It’s a small detail that doesn’t ring true in this movie.

“Of an Age” might bring up a lot of questions that the movie doesn’t answer. But there’s no doubt that the passion between Adam and Kol is real for both of them. Viewers will be intrigued by finding out how much Adam and Kol have changed in 11 years—or how much Adam and Kol might have stayed the same. And are they still right for each other 11 years after they have met? It’s a question that’s open to many different interpretations, which can be exactly what “Of an Age” intends for viewers.

Focus Features released “Of an Age” in select U.S. cinemas on February 17, 2023.

Review: ‘You Won’t Be Alone,’ starring Sara Klimoska, Anamaria Marinca, Alice Englert, Félix Maritaud, Carloto Cotta and Noomi Rapace

February 5, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jasmina Avramovica and Noomi Rapace in “You Won’t Be Alone” (Photo by Branko Starcevic/Focus Features)

“You Won’t Be Alone”

Directed by Goran Stolevski

Macedonian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed rural part of Macedonia in the 19th century, the horror film “You Won’t Be Alone” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman, who was cursed as a baby by an evil witch, wanders around taking different forms of life, while the evil witch keeps showing up to make sure that the woman remains unhappy and unable to experience love.

Culture Audience: “You Won’t Be Alone” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in artsy, European horror movies that aren’t always obvious and straightforward in their messaging.

Sara Klimoska and Anamaria Marinca in “You Won’t Be Alone” (Photo by Branko Starcevic/Focus Features)

Combining artsy existentialism and bloody horror doesn’t sound like a good match, but somehow “You Won’t Be Alone” does it well enough for viewers who have patience for a slow-paced movie with an impactful ending. Getting to that ending can be too much of a slog for people who don’t care for movies with a language that’s foreign to most viewers, or movies that have imagery and scenes that are almost like pieces to a puzzle. This “slow burn” film has tension, but it will not satisfy people looking for an action-packed thriller. For everyone else who wants to take on the challenge of watching “You Won’t Be Alone,” be prepared for a ride that’s like a ponderous fever dream about witchcraft. “You Won’t Be Alone” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Written and directed by Goran Stolevski, “You Won’t Be Alone” takes place in an unnamed rural part of Macedonia in the 19th century. (The movie was actually filmed in Serbia.) The story is about a cursed female who wanders around the area and is able to shapeshift/transform into anything or anyone she kills. She was cursed as a baby by an evil witch, who shows up from time to time to make sure that this cursed female remains unhappy and unable to stay in one place for too long.

The opening of “You Won’t Be Alone” shows how this curse happened. A woman named Yoana (played by Kamka Tocinovski) lives on a farm, and she has a baby daughter named Nevena. Inside a barn, Yoana is in distress because she and Nevena are in the presence of a witch called Maria (played by Anamaria Marinca), also known as Old Maid Maria. Maria looks like a stereotypical witch hag: Her hair is straggly and in patches on her head. She’s hunched over, and her face looks like it has severe burn scars.

“Have mercy,” Yoana begs Maria. “On my blood, I beg of you! Children are a burden. You don’t want the nuisance.” Maria hisses in response: “Are you a fool, woman? As if I want a child. A bit of blood is all. A fresh-born’s.”

Yoana pleads with Maria: “I’ll bring you other babies! Leave me my Nevena. It’s a daughter you want?” Maria replies, “Spend my one witching spit? On this runt?” Yoana continues to beg Maria not to curse Nevena as a baby and wait until Nevena is 16. This desperate mother takes a knife and cuts the inside of her own left forearm to offer the witch some blood.

However, Maria remains unmoved. “I think not,” Maria says. And then, Maria puts some blood on the baby’s mouth to enact the curse. Yoana is so ashamed of what has happened that she decides to pretend to everyone that Nevena has died. She runs outside and screams that a wolf has stolen her baby.

In actuality, Yoana has secretly hidden baby Nevena in a cave, where Yoana takes care of her. The movie then fast-forwards to a teenage Nevena (played by Sara Klimoska), who’s about 16 years old. She has been mute since being cursed by the witch, but Nevena’s inner thoughts can be heard in a voiceover. Nevena has never been outside of the cave until the Maria the witch comes back to pay a visit.

Without giving away too much information, it’s enough to say that Maria kills Yoana in the cave. And it’s the first time that Nevena sees how shapeshifting can work. Maria forces Nevena to go outside of the cave with her and begins to teach her how kill, shapeshift, and eventually live on her own. Maria is often cruel and impatient with Nevena, who is initially very reluctant to kill animals for food until she is taught by Maria that killing animals for food is a way to survive.

Nevena finds out that because of the curse, she is now a witch with the power to shapeshift into anyone or anything that she kills. In human form, Nevena has long dark nails that look like talons. Nevena can also self-heal from injuries and doesn’t feel pain. Nevena discovers she has these abilities when Maria burns her as a test. However, even when Nevena transforms into another human, she still doesn’t have the ability to talk.

The rest of “You Won’t Be Alone” follows Nevena’s journey as she encounters other people and how they react to each other. Not everyone makes it out alive. And not everyone Nevena transforms into is a female or a human. Maria shows up from time to time because she doesn’t want Nevena to become too comfortable or happy.

One the people whom Nevena encounters during this often-bizarre story is a mother named Basilka (played by Noomi Rapace), who has recently given birth to a baby. Basilka is in a miserable marriage to a man who physically and emotionally abuses her, but Basilka is treated kindly by her mother-in-law (played by Jasmina Avramovica). Nevena becomes a part of Basilka’s world which consists of other women who are degraded and abused by their husbands, but they women find comfort in each other’s friendships.

Through observations of people around her, Nevena learns to imitate human emotions and what reactions and actions are considered appropriate and acceptable. She doesn’t pick up social cues right away, which leads to some awkward moments. Maria notices that the men in this farming community like to make the women cry. Since viewers can hear Nevena’s thoughts, she has a name for tears that come from crying: “eye water.”

She also makes this observation about people in Basilka’s world: “When a man is in the room, you are not a woman. You are the stew, the bread. Your place—it is inside his palm.” And she has this to say about the camaraderie that the women find with each other: “When the women [are] in the room, your mouth, it never stops opening … You are the looking glass … To the man, you are the water.”

Later on in the movie, which spans over several years, other characters play key roles in Nevena’s journey as a cursed witch. There’s a handsome ladies’ man named Boris (played by Carloto Cotta); a girl named Biliana (played by Anastasija Karanovich); and a boy named Yovan (played by Danilo Savic). As adults, Biliana (played by Alice Englert) and Yovan (played by Félix Maritaud) have life-changing transitions that affect Nevena.

“You Won’t Be Alone” is a movie that is not brimming with dialogue, but the cast members give admirable performances in expressing emotions in this very oppressive world. There are long stretches of the movie that are atmospheric shots where viewers are invited to soak up the scenery. However, amid the lush greenery of the forests and fields there’s bloody brutality, as well as the always-lurking threat that Maria will suddenly appear. Most of “You Won’t Be Alone” is very bleak, but the movie has a powerful message that doesn’t really emerge until the last 10 minutes. Because of this gripping conclusion, viewers who are patient enough to stick with the movie until the end will appreciate the story the most.

Focus Features will release “You Won’t Be Alone” in select U.S. cinemas on April 1, 2022. UPDATE: Peacock will premiere “You Won’t Be Alone” on May 16, 2022.

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