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HOUSEKEEPING(director/writer: Bill Forsyth; screenwriter: from the novel ”Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson; cinematographer: Michael Coulter; editor: Michael Ellis; music: Michael Gibbs; cast: Christine Lahti (Sylvie), Sara Walker (Ruth), Andrea Burchill (Lucille), Anne Pitoniak (Aunt Lily), Barbara Reese (Aunt Nona), Margot Pinvidic (Helen, the Mother), Georgie Collins (Grandmother), Bill Smillie (Sheriff), Wayne Robson (Principal), Betty Phillips (Mrs. Jardine), Karen Austin (Mrs. Paterson), (as Delores Drake (Mrs. Walker); Runtime: 116; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Robert F. Colesberry; Columbia TriStar; 1987)
“It’s beautifully played out as a proverbial fable that leaves a lasting impression.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Housekeeping is adapted from Marilynne Robinson’s acclaimed 1981 novel. It’s Scottish director Bill Forsyth’s (“Local Hero”/”Gregory’s Girl “) first film made in America.

The film is set in the scenic Pacific Northwest in the 1950s. It tells the story of two young girls, Lucille and Ruthie, who are taken on a car ride by their mother (Margot Pinvidic) from Seattle to Fingerbone, Idaho, to visit their grandma. Mom abandons them to commit suicide by driving the car into a lake and for seven years they are raised by their prim widowed granny (Georgie Collins). When granny passes away Ruth (Sara Walker), 15, and Lucille (Andrea Burchill ), 13, are briefly cared for by two jittery old-bat great-aunts from Spokane (Anne Pitoniak & Barbara Reese), and then by their mother’s long-lost eccentric and wandering sister, Sylvie (Christine Lahti). The caregiver is certainly sweet and friendly, like the mother they barely remember, but acts strange and strikes a bizarre pose for the square town by defying social conventions. She has odd habits such as sitting in the dark in the house, taking long walks alone to town without proper dress for the winter, hoarding newspapers in piles that overrun the living room, sleeping on park benches and collecting hundreds of tin cans only to wash off their labels and then polish and arrange them as shiny pyramids. As a substitute parent she strikes out by condoning the girls’ truancy and not providing them with proper parenting. Soon the irresponsible Sylvie turns off Lucille, who seeks normalcy by being sheltered with a concerned neighbor, while the gawky Ruthie goes along with her caregiver’s kookie ways and after they steal a fisherman’s battered rowboat and stay out all night and hitch a ride on the freight train to return home–an incident that draws the attention of the sheriff. He sends three church ladies to see if they can help and they deliver a shocking report about the housekeeping and the caregiver’s unconventional attitude, which auntie knows will only lead to loss of custody. By this time the shy and awkward Ruthie, the film’s narrator, has bonded with Sylvie, and they find their own unique way to deal with this problem.

The film is comically orientated but has a bleak dark side, painting a somber picture of futility, isolation and a strange sense of growing up without direction. It’s at times inspiring and at other times debilitating. Both girls, though of a different nature, are sympathetically treated. It’s difficult to reconcile the eccentric behavior of the girls’ aunt, but it’s beautifully played out as a proverbial fable that leaves a lasting impression and some keen observations about family ties.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”