Daring to be different

Sisters shown world of possibilities

Published: Apr 04 2015, 01:01:am

Friday, January 29, 1988
HOUSEKEEPING. Based on the 1980 novel by Marilynne Robinson. Music by Michael Gibbs. Written and directed by Bill Forsyth. Running time: 117 minutes. Mature entertainment.
GRANDPA (ADRIAN NAQVI) WAS born under the big sky. A prairie child, he fell in love with the mountains.
    Mother was born in the mountains. Together with her sister Sylvie (Christine Lahti), Helen Stone (Margo Pinvidic) was raised in Fingerbone, Washington, a small town on the rail line.
    Ruth (Sara Walker) and Lucille (Andrea Burchill) are city born. They remember the day that their Mom packed their younger selves (Tonya Tanner and Leah Penny) into a borrowed car and drove inland to their grandmother's house.
    It was a Sunday. While they waited in their grandmother's parlour, Mrs. Stone calmly and deliberately drove down the road and off the edge of the mountain.
    Bill Forsyth was born in Scotland. A Glasgow filmmaker, he is internationally renowned for his tangential, mildly insane comedies, gentle tales of likeable obsessives making do in an imperfect world.
     He came to prominence with 1982's Gregory's Girl, and has since delighted audiences with Local Hero (1983) and Comfort and Joy (1984), all set in his native Scotland. Housekeeping, the story of Ruth and Lucille's coming of age in rural Washington State, is his first feature with a New World setting.
    At first glance, it's no comedy. Narrated by teenaged Ruth, it is the young woman's recollection of her sister Lucille and their life with Aunt Sylvie following the death of their grandmother (Georgie Collins).
    After years spent among the elderly, Sylvie is an exciting new experience. Before long, the orphans realize that their aunt is permanently disconnected from the realities of their small town life.
    Like so many of Forsyth's characters, Sylvie marches to the beat of a determinedly different drummer. As played by the wonderfully self-assured Lahti, she is a creature of the present, a happy hobo who has little and wants less.
    A shock to her nieces, she is the catalyst for change in each of them. Lucille, like her mother before her, discovers a craving for community acceptance, convention and conformity.
    Ruth, to her sister's horror, becomes more and more like her blissed-out aunt. As their story unfolds, it becomes clear that this examination of the lightly lunatic Sylvie's effect on her charges is archetypal Forsyth.
    A director who doesn't do one-liners, Forsyth prefers the truth of character over situation comedy. If there is humour, it results from the interplay of off-beat personalities.
    In Housekeeping, his focus is on a single dominant character interacting with two still-tentative personalities. Here, he asks us to consider the choices offered the Stone girls and to reflect on the possibilities.
    He trusts co-starring roles to a pair of young, first-time feature performers. Rewarding him with absolutely first-rate work are Walker and Burchill, both Vancouver Youth Theatre members.
    A tragicomic tale of American values — shot in and around Nelson and Castlegar, B.C. — Housekeeping is yet another distinctively sharp-eyed Forsythian vision.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1987. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Christine Lahti, celebrating her 65th birthday today (April 4), made her first working visit to B.C. in 1980 for the filming of director Lou Adler's ill-fated punk-rock musical All Washed Up. The picture, given limited release by Paramount in 1982 as Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, featured Lahti in her first auntie role, playing the disapproving Aunt Linda to teenaged Diane Lane's wannabe rock star Corrine Burns. Lahti has been described by The New York Times as "a scene stealer par excellence," an ability that proved to be a mixed blessing. Much of her performance opposite Goldie Hawn in the Second World War homefront drama Swing Shift (1984) was cut after preview screenings. Enough remained, though, for Lahti to win a supporting actress Academy Award. In a 1985 People magazine interview, she discussed becoming "a hippie" in college. The experience informed her fugitive mother role in 1988's Running on Empty, director Sidney Lumet's tale of student radicals who'd been living "underground" since 1971, as well as her current progressive political activism. In 1996, she won a second Oscar for her directorial debut, collecting the live-action short film award for the 39-minute Lieberman in Love, an adaptation of a story by B.C.-based Canadian author W.P. Kinsella. Lahti's list of performing credits includes three more visits to B.C. — to co-star with Meg Tilly in director Edward Zwick's road picture Leaving Normal (1992), with Jeff Goldblum in director Brett Leonard's fantasy thriller Hideaway (1995) and to star in director Bill Eagles' made-for-TV family drama The Book of Ruth (2004).