Teen sisters Ruth and Lucille, raised by a grandmother after their mother's suicide, end up living with an aunt in a western U.S. town called Fingerbone after the grandmother dies.
Aunt Sylvie is an unusual woman. She likes to sit in the dark and sleep in the park. Others in town are never quite sure what to make of her. And the same holds true for the girls, even when Sylvie writes elaborate excuses to get them out of school.Christine Lahti as Sylvie
Sara Walker as Ruth
Andrea Burchill as Lucille
Anne Pitoniak as Aunt Lily
Barbara Reese as Aunt Nona
Margot Pinvidic as Helen
Bill Smillie as Sheriff
Wayne Robson as Principal
Betty Phillips as Mrs. Jardine
Karen Elizabeth Austin as Mrs. Paterson
Dolores Drake as Mrs. Walker
Georgie Collins as Grandmother
Tonya Tanner as Young Ruth
Leah Penny as Young Lucille
Housekeeping was the first North American film by writer and director Bill Forsyth, whose previous films—That Sinking Feeling (1980), Gregory's Girl (1981), Local Hero (1983), and Comfort and Joy (1984)—were produced in Scotland. Forsyth's screenplay for the film is based on the 1980 novel Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. It was in fact the prospect of bringing the novel to film that brought him to America. Forsyth would later describe his film version as an attempt to "make a commercial to get people to read the novel".
Housekeeping was filmed on location in Castlegar and Nelson, British Columbia, Canada. Principal photography began on September 22, 1986 and ended in December 1986.
Housekeeping was released in the United States on November 25, 1987. That month it was also shown at the Regus London Film Festival. Housekeeping was released on VHS video in the United States on July 8, 1988.
In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby described the film as a "haunting comedy about impossible attachments and doomed affection in a world divided between two kinds of people"—those who pass aimlessly through life and embrace random existence, and those who seek to impose reason and order on random existence. These two types are represented by the eccentric aunt Sylvie, who wanders aimlessly from town to town, and Lucille, who longs to establish familial roots and "live the way other people do". The relationship between Lucille and her sister Ruth is transformed as the latter grows increasingly drawn to her aunt's way of life. Canby notes that Forsyth is able to "make us care equally" for both sisters.
Canby described Lahti's performance as "spellbinding" in this "role of her film career":
Sylvie is a beauty even when she looks a mess. She enters the movie quietly, as if by a side entrance, so it takes some time to feel the strength of her presence, which, once established, dominates the film. When she's off-screen, one tends to worry about what she's up to. When she's on-screen, one searches for clues to what's going on in the seeming serenity of her mind.
Canby is equally impressed with Sara Walker's portrayal of Ruth and Andrea Burchill's Lucille, noting that "every member of the cast is special". Canby concluded:
Housekeeping is by far the most accomplished comedy yet made by Mr. Forsyth, the Scottish director who first came onto the international scene with Gregory's Girl and Local Hero. Miss Robinson's novel has provided him with material in which the mysterious is an essential component of the mundane, and not simply a leavening agent. Though it's full of moments of real sadness, Housekeeping is also startlingly funny.
In his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars, calling it "one of the strangest and best films of the year". According to Ebert, Lahti was the perfect choice to play the central role of Sylvie.
Although she has been excellent in a number of realistic roles ..., there is something resolutely private about her, a sort of secret smile that is just right for Sylvie. The role requires her to find a delicate line; she must not seem too mad or willful, or the whole charm of the story will be lost. And although there are times when she seems to be indifferent to her nieces, she never seems not to love them.
Ebert concluded, "At the end of the film, I was quietly astonished. I had seen a film that could perhaps be described as being about a madwoman, but I had seen a character who seemed closer to a mystic, or a saint."
On the AllMovie website, Housekeeping has an editorial rating of four and a half out of five stars.