“Homemakers” is a film so filled with destruction and chaos, both physical and emotional, that it’s possible to miss its deeper themes, which are lurking like something hidden behind the walls that its protagonist so ardently destroys. But it’s not the kind of smoke and mirrors CGI destruction and chaos that we see so often that it’s lost all meaning; this destruction is intimate and real, carried out by real people, a lashing out by characters caught between a world they reject and their conception of a better world that they can’t quite will into existence.
“Homemakers” is the story of Irene (Rachel McKeon), an Austin punk singer, whose capricious and explosive nature make her the main attraction of her band while making life difficult off-stage. In the midst of an argument with her band that will probably end with Irene getting kicked out, she receives a phone call. Her grandfather has died in Pittsburgh. Seizing on the opportune timing and unassailable motive, she manufactures some tears and escapes to Pittsburgh.
In Pittsburgh, she finds that her grandfather left her his house, a classic row-house that has seen better days but is still a sturdy home. Irene’s renovation method is three parts whiskey and one part rage as she cleans out the house with abandon, clearing the carpets and kitsch of generations prior while leaving her own smashed rubble behind. She befriends Cam (Jack Culbertson) while drinking herself into a stupor, only to discover he’s a cousin she hasn’t seen in years and enlists him in her project. Together they drink a truly awe-inspiring amount of alcohol and carry out creative destruction on their grandfathers’ house, eventually doing some actual work so it resembles a home, if not one anything like the one she inherited.
Questions of inheritance and generational conflict simmer beneath the surface of the action. Irene has emphatically rejected the world of her parents, turning this rejection into an entire lifestyle, not without collateral damage. With her life in Austin drying up at the roots, the house in Pittsburgh becomes both an opportunity for a fresh start and an outlet for previously unimagined domestic impulses. But Irene can’t reconcile these feelings with her estrangement from the entire familial sphere of life; she stalks the house visiting destruction on the walls while flinging recriminations at her absent mother. The older characters can’t see the roots of Irene’s angst and view her actions with a mix of disapproval and confusion. In one memorable encounter, Irene’s father bemoans how a generation of “survivors, who must produce” gave rise to a generation that “rolls those sleeves right back down. They aspire, but it’s not the same.”
The film is aesthetically miles away from the polished interiors of Hollywood. We see the raw guts of both the house and the characters and the production design of thrift-store shirts, recycled and improvised living arrangements, and peeling, marker-covered walls create a texture refreshingly true to life for young city-dwellers. The house is a gritty metaphor for their contested inheritance as they strip away superficialities to reveal its unadorned essence. But the gulf between surface and within is best shown in Irene herself. The camera seldom leaves McKeon for a second and she responds with a riveting, explosive performance. Irene is alternately tender, terrifying, brave, careless, idealistic, mercurial, and everything in between; a dynamo of uncontrollable energy that doesn’t know where to focus. She is a consummate performer, constantly putting on a front for the other characters, making it all the more satisfying when she lets her guard down and McKeon’s eyes show a glimpse of the turmoil and uncertainty lying underneath.
“Homemakers” is an unassuming film that might be too messy and wild for some people to see through. But those who do will be rewarded with a brave and original film. First-time director Colin Healey’s camera flinches from nothing, capturing McKeon’s brilliant performance in all of its ragged glory. Irene’s domestic destruction touches something deep and real – the fractious process by which we reshape the world we inherit, powered by the irresolvable conflicts within our families and our selves.