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‘Housekeeping’ Doesn’t Sweep Problems Under the Carpet

A woman abandons her transient lifestyle to come home and care for her two orphan teen-age nieces.

But she’s so odd.

She stops outside strangers’ windows to watch TV. She collects old cans and newspapers, rides in railroad boxcars and hollers at passing trains at night.

In “Housekeeping,” Bill Forsyth--who also directed the lovely and sentimental “Local Hero"--gives us a story of isolation and estrangement. Christine Lahti plays Sylvie, the free spirit who can’t adjust to the rules and mores of small-town life. The more she tries to keep her new family together, the more she seems to fail.

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One niece, Lucille, is embarrassed by the way Sylvie carries on--sleeping on a park bench in the middle of town and filling their home with mountains of newspapers and old cans. When Lucille runs away, Sylvie grows closer to the other niece, Ruthie, in whom she senses a growing eccentricity that seems to run in the family.

The bond between the two grows stronger when Sylvie and Ruthie row to a once-inhabited island covered by frost and overrun with weeds. There, Ruthie says in her unemotional narrative voice, she can sense the feral children who hide in the forest and are enticed only by marshmallows left on twigs.

Ruthie is clearly on the same wavelength with Sylvie when she hears the “children” whisper to her, “It’s better to have nothing.” It’s a call away from housekeeping, against materialism. Or could it be Sylvie’s influence playing on her mind?

Shot in Canada, “Housekeeping” is filled with the surreal beauty of its mountains and lakes. And Forsyth’s sense of humor shows throughout, as he delivers an odd but believable picture of the fictional town of Fingerbone, Wash.

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But the film, adapted from the Marilynne Robinson novel, weaves a sustained sadness into the story that pierces through even its lighthearted moments.

Forsyth carefully shows how Sylvie has become estranged from society. When town officials try to remove Ruthie from her care, she decides to project more domesticity. As she readies Ruthie for school she decides to iron her niece’s skirt because “they like that.” “They” are watching her every move, even at night outdoors when she burns her newspapers and, inadvertently, Ruthie’s schoolbooks.

“Housekeeping,” is about eccentricity. But it’s also an affirmation that it’s OK to be different--to thumb your nose at convention and a society that tolerates only one set of rules.

“Housekeeping” (1987), directed by Bill Forsyth. 117 minutes. Rated PG.

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