A Spectacular Derailment: On Housekeeping

Christine Lahti in Housekeeping (1987) | Columbia Picutres
Columbia Pictures

It is Bill Forsyth’s own admission that his 1987 film Housekeeping “wasn’t very well-promoted or marketed.” His first film produced by an American studio, the Scottish director nevertheless called the process “benign” owing to the movie’s smallness. In an advertising push that failed to adequately fill seats (the meager opening weekend box office suggests a resounding “meh”), the marketing materials presented a total tonal misreading of the off-kilter drama. Columbia Pictures presented the film as a kooky family comedy, with a zany Amelia Bedelia-like aunt at the center poised to turn her nieces’ lives positively upside down. 

One can’t be blamed for entering the world of Housekeeping with such mild expectations. The late ‘80s were fecund ground for wacky familial misadventures, sometimes involving disruptive outsider relatives who join the fold, engage in untold hijinks, and eventually prove indispensable in a heartwarming coda. (Diane Keaton, who was originally attached to Housekeeping, left to star instead in Baby Boom, wherein a cold-hearted yuppie is transformed by her inheritance of a relative’s baby. Then there’s the bizarro Housekeeping, the tender-hearted Uncle Buck.) Nor does the unpretentious aesthetic of Housekeeping assert itself as being tremendously haunting or tragic, though the film certainly is those things. Forsyth’s filmmaking style is thrifty and unobtrusive, lending the film a homely, familiar aesthetic that belies the undercurrent of strangeness and sadness.

Though Homecoming’s rollout positioned Christine Lahti’s Aunt Sylvie as the star and anchor of the film, it’s really about a trio of characters and their shared experiences ofand disparate reactions tofamilial loss and trauma in small-town America. Set in 1950s Fingerbone, a rural town both a train ride and a world away from Spokane, Washington, Housekeeping tells the story of sisters Ruthie (Sara Walker) and Lucille (Andrea Burchill), both on the cusp of their teen years. When the girls are little, their sweet but distant single mother, Helen, whisks them away on a puzzling road trip to their grandmother’s house. Soon after, Helen ends her life by driving into Fingerbone Lake, leaving her daughters to shuffle through a series of caretakers, all of whom eventually pass away or skip town. When Sylvie, Helen’s itinerant sister, passes through Fingerbone, she is next in line as the girls’ de facto guardian.

When Sylvie arrives, Ruthie and Lucille are excited to have gained a conduit into their mother’s life, especially from a livelier, younger presence than they’ve been accustomed. Their homeand the whole of Fingerbone, it seemswas heretofore a place only for the very young and very old. (Under the stewardship of their grandmother, then their great aunts, “the paperboy was the only person under 60 that we saw regularly.”) It immediately becomes clear that the girls’ aunt will not provide the insight that they crave; her recollections are vague and her attention is difficult to corral. 

Housekeeping (1987) | Columbia Pictures

Sylvie initially appears unburdened by the inordinate amount of loss that’s wracked her family, her remembrances that of either an emotionally enlightened or woefully detached person. She recalls her father’s death years earlier in a train accident—the town’s infamous “spectacular derailment” into the depths of Fingerbone Lake—as more of a mythical occurrence than horrific loss. When she asks how her own mother’s funeral was, it comes across as a polite query rather than an expression of grief. Sylvie sees much of the world through this air of sunny obliviousness, seemingly nonplussed by the frigid temperatures (“Why don’t you wear boots?” “Well, I suppose I should”) and fetid floodwater that fills the house shortly after she moves in. 

Even though the family has functionally grown into a trio, the sisters are, at least at first, still very much a separate entity from their aunt. From the jump, Ruthie and Lucille are presented as a singular unit. Early on they even share a similar physicality, wearing youthful, neutral garb (in the Pacific Northwest, flannel, as ever, is king), and seem disinterested in socializing with their peers. Much of their partnership unfolds on Lake Fingerbone, isolated from those around them, whether it’s going off to ice skate away from the other children or playing hooky and wandering the lake’s chilly banks. The sisterhood, tethered by abandonment and a mutual willingness to comfort one another, emerges as the dominating relationship in the first act of the film.  

Upon her arrival, the girls share in their apprehensions and anxieties towards their strange aunt. When Sylvie goes for a walk one morning, Ruthie and Lucille, scarred by a lifetime of elders leaving and not returning, assume the worst and follow her into town. Finding her reading departure times at the train station—she only went in to warm up, she claims—they practically coerce her into sticking around. The sisters long to find some long-absent parental guidance in Sylvie, a sturdy point to the family’s new triangular shape. 

When the girls start playing hooky at Lucille’s behest, it’s more to avoid the dread of school than to experience the cool rush of rule-breaking: “We were cold, bored, lonely, and guilty, and longing to be caught.” They crave the structure that their aunt defies, spending her own days wandering around town, hoarding abandoned newspapers and tin cans. When they are finally caught down at the lakeside, Sylvie is pleasantly surprised to see them, as if she’s come across fellow wayfaring strangers rather than her truant nieces. The reaction, Ruthie recalls, is “unsatisfactory” and “annoying.” It is Sylvie, in fact, who is found in the more compromising position, walking the precarious train tracks above the lake: “Sometimes it felt that we were looking after Sylvie instead of the other way around.”   

Housekeeping is an adaptation of the 1980 Marilynne Robinson novel of the same name, and Forsyth has spoken of his reverence for the source text. Forsyth often lifts Robinson’s prose straight from the page for the humble sense of responsibility to showcase and preserve it. While Forsyth has described his adaptation as transcribing Robinson’s language into some kind of filmic form, this undersells his ability to express the visual rhythms of sisterhood onto the screen. In Housekeeping’s first act, so much of Ruthie and Lucille’s communication can be measured through an exchange of covert glances, some to signify fellow feeling, others to serve as gentle warnings. 

These knowing looks, and the sisters’ body language as a whole, function as a secondary undercurrent of silent dialogue. This is especially significant in a film where so much is unspoken. Much of the family history is little more than folklore, like the lone patriarch’s fantastical death and his childhood obsession with mountains. Other more pressing truths—like the whereabouts of the sisters’ absent father or Sylvie’s mysterious husband—are either shrugged off or buried in anonymous photos in the bottom dresser drawer. If Sylvie offers any insight into the family’s collective character, it is how she describes her father: restless. 

“There are two kinds of people in the world” is a tired cliché, but in the case of Housekeeping, it turns out to be true. There are the Sylvies, like her father before her, who are born out of a dreamy, restless wanderlust. And then there are the Lucilles, who strive for normalcy and order against the currents of an entropic world. Sylvie senses in Ruthie a nascent wanderer, her niece amenable to roaming frostbitten orchards and hopping freight trains. As Sylvie draws Ruthie into her dream world, she equally repels Lucille, who increasingly identifies with the fastidious townsfolk whose only crime is favoring convention. Forsyth is generous to both types, not claiming that one is good and the other evil. “It’s kind of infantile to have baddies and goodies in life,” Forsyth said in a 2010 interview about his body of work, which (aside from being an extremely charming thing to say) offers a particularly sympathetic reading of Sylvie, whose behavior, as the film’s second act unfolds, can border on unsettling.  

Ruthie and Lucille’s division into their respective camps is gradual, but not altogether surprising. Early in the film Lucille is more easily susceptible to embarrassment and fears the judgement of her peers. It is Lucille who longs for nicer, more stylish clothes, and who feels the twinges of cabin fever when the flooding snowmelt leaves the trio housebound. “Oh yeah, it’s the loneliness,” remarks Sylvie. “It bothers a lot of people,” herself implicitly excluded. Ruthie, on the other hand, is more withdrawn, staring at the ground as she trails her sister through town, opting for denim and flannel over Lucille’s handmade blouses. 

It is ultimately Sylvie, however, who pulls each girl deeper into her corner. Sylvie’s eccentricities begin to wear on Lucille, first as embarrassment towards her aunt’s affinity with “trashy” vagrants, then hot-faced shame when Sylvie is spotted snoozing on a town bench. Ruthie doesn’t mind so much, even admiring the “bright and sound and orderly” can collection overtaking their kitchen. “I was touched by her efforts [to clean the cans],” she reflects. “It was an improvement in some way.” To her sister’s annoyance, Ruthie would rather look at flowers pressed into a book or go on meandering walks than help Lucille sew a new dress. Sylvie’s strangeness, and a similar “impracticality” growing in Ruthie, is eventually too much for Lucille to bear; she’s effectively adopted by the home economics teacher. Recalls Ruthie, “I had no sister after that night.”

Lucille’s departure ushers in the film’s second act, as well as the solidification of the relationship between Sylvie and Ruthie. It’s only when the trio has been reduced to a duo that we see the true shades of Sylvie’s eccentricity. For all of the shock she sends into Ruthie and Lucille’s lives upon her arrival, there are large swaths of the first act where Sylvie isn’t on-screen. It’s a testament to Lahti’s performance that when the sisters are alone on the lake or at school, we’re left wondering what Sylvie could be up to, what the rhythms of her days look like. 

When we’re finally granted a full day with Sylvie, the reality is at once a culmination of the strange, innocuous behavior we’ve already seen—sitting alone in the dark, coming home with a fish in her pocket—and more unsettling impulses that suggest the girls’ aunt is not merely an eccentric. Eager to spend the day exploring an orchard across the lake with her aunt, Ruthie joins Sylvie as they head out at dawn in a leaky rowboat she conveniently “finds” on the beach (it could belong to the man yelling after them, she admits, or else he’s “some sort of lunatic”). 

Sylvie leads her niece to an abandoned cabin, hoping to lure, she admits, one of the ghostly children she envisions living out in the sticks. “Now and then I’m pretty sure there’s children around me. I can practically hear them.” Ruthie picks absentmindedly at the marshmallows her aunt has left as bait on the branches of trees. While that admission would surely leave the townspeople of Fingerbone bug-eyed, Ruthie reacts as Sylvie might: enchanted and unfazed. The daytrip turns into an overnight on the lake, and the outing ends on an eerie, perilous note: two women in the dead of night, singing “Goodnight Irene” on the chilly waters that took two of their relatives’ lives. Eerie, that is, unless you asked the women in question. They’d call it a nice time. 

A scene from Housekeeping (1987)

Housekeeping never explicitly mentions mental illness, but Lahti’s layered performance chips away at an individual who straddles the line between madness and unbridled earnestness. For someone who appears oddly untroubled by a flooded house or kitchen curtains that have caught fire (she puts it out, mid-laughter, with a broom), Sylvie is also acutely aware of what a lifetime of grief can do to a person. In that regard, Sylvie is a welcome presence for Ruthie. For Lucille, her aunt’s disregard for norms (or a house untainted by hoarding tendencies) is a symbol of social regression to be distanced from. “That’s Sylvie’s house now,” Lucille says to her sister. “We have to improve ourselves starting right now.” Self-improvement, however, is in the eye of the beholder. Sylvie’s brand of nonconformity extends beyond fish-filled pockets to valuing messy emotions that others might deem unsavory. To the chagrin of the nosy townsfolk, Sylvie doesn’t try to suppress Ruthie’s sadness: “She is sad. I mean, she should be sad. I don’t mean she should be, but, I mean, who wouldn’t be? That’s how it is with family.”

Were that all Sylvie was to Ruthie—a reliable guardian, plagued by the same familial tragedy, who sees the world in the same colors as her wallflower niece—then Housekeeping could conclude in something approaching a storybook ending. (Cue Miss Honey and Matilda rollerblading around their living room.) But Forsyth’s film is a brittle, misty, mad-eyed thing, and Sylvie is too complex for her own good—and for the well-meaning but prying people of Fingerbone—to be squared away so tidily. 

Perhaps most troublingly, and what prevents a warm and fuzzy conclusion, is that Sylvie doesn’t really consider herself a guardian so much as a peer to her niece. When Lucille moves out, she comforts the crying Ruthie, but she also offers a flawed silver lining: “Maybe we’ll be better friends.” Sylvie sees Ruthie not only as an equal, but “like another sister to me.” In this way, Sylvie and Ruth’s partnership, and their commitment to a life of wandering, is bittersweet. The two may be kindred spirits, but Sylvie’s wild-eyed appeal to an unknown future spent “moving around” casts a grim shadow over their journey. The fact that they make their exit over the mythical, menacing railroad bridge—the focal point of Fingerbone’s history and a tragic site for the family—also signals a doomed fate. As they make their way under cover of darkness, Lucille’s voice rings out in a ghostly voiceover: “She always does that. She just wanders away.” Whether that’s an endeavor to aspire to or desperately avoid depends on the listener.