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Filmmaker shares his discovery of Pittsburgh in ‘Homemakers’

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Jack Culbertson and Rachel McKeon stars in the independent film 'Homemakers.'

Irene is a mess.

She’s an agent of chaos, an accordion thrown down the stairs, a scorpion let loose in the bedsheets.

She seems compelled to smash things — beer bottles, furniture, even her bandmates’ instruments, in the middle of a performance at an Austin bar when she catches one making eyes at a guy in the back.

This quality makes for a great rock ‘n’ roll singer and makes her stick out among a band of otherwise cliched indie-rock types. But, elsewhere in life, it’s a problem.

When she inherits the long-abandoned rowhouse of her great-grandfather in Pittsburgh, she’s confronted with a chaos that, perhaps, matches her own — that of a falling-down old house full of another person’s junk and memories.

“Homemakers,” one of the four opening-night films for the Three Rivers Film Festival, is one of the things independent film does best — tell small-scale, intimate, offbeat stories that don’t look like anything you’ve seen before. These sorts of low-budget American indies have long been a staple of the festival, which starts its 33rd year Nov. 7.

“I’m from New England and didn’t know anything about Pittsburgh until I had a couple of friends who moved there,” says Brooklyn-based filmmaker Colin Healey, who wrote and shot the film while living in Lawrenceville.

“I got off the bus at night and was angry that no one in my life had told me that Pittsburgh was interesting,” Healey says. “Nothing was like Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is itself.

“It’s a weird, beautiful place, with its own architecture and own everything. I just felt cheated for not knowing this for the first 23 years of my life. When I moved there, I was very keen on making something that would capture this sense of place.”

In particular, Healey found the tiny working-class rowhouses fascinating. “They all have stories,” he says. “The story of why some are empty and some aren’t is completely fascinating.

Soon enough, one of those houses sort of fell into his lap, and “Homemakers” had a home.

“Basically, we got the house because I hung out at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern and got to be friends with the owner, Steve Frankowski, and he has a few houses at Darcy Street in Bloomfield,” Healey says. “He was using it as storage for the bar. It was this funny old house and felt perfect for telling a story. It felt full of memories that we just had to dredge up.”

In her own peculiar way, Irene (Rachel McKeon) bashes her imprint onto the shabby, crumbling old house, with the help of a long-lost sad-sack cousin Cam (Jack Culbertson). The tiny house bashes back.

McKeon, originally from Erie, is a revelation as the wild, unpredictable Irene, one of the strongest and strangest female characters to appear onscreen in recent years.

“She’s a fantastic actress,” Healey says. “She answered my ad in Pittsburgh. I had imagined it with a different face in mind, but she auditioned and was clearly the strongest actor. She brought this real edge to the role that I didn’t expect. She was doing theater — something in Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre and ‘Legally Blonde: The Musical.’ ”

Even Irene realizes she’s stumbling toward domesticity, even uttering, “This is my mess.”

“ ‘This is my mess’ is kind of my theme to the movie,” Healey says. “I’m kind of a messy person. I have a lot of old crappy things that I get attached to. ‘Homemakers’ is my mess. I like a big, strong mess. It’s your evidence that you were there.”

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7901.

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