Stage Mother ***
Starring: Jacki Weaver, Lucy Liu, Adrien Grenier, Mya Taylor, Allister MacDonald, Oscar Moreno, Jackie Beat
Director: Thom Fitzgerald
A decade ago, Maybelline Metcalfe (Weaver – Silver Linings Playbook, Animal Kingdom) bit her tongue when her husband disowned their gay son in small-town Texas. When she discovers that he has now died of a drug overdose, she decides that she has to try and finally make peace with the past and heads to San Francisco, where she discovers that he owned a drag bar, which she has now inherited. Though her late son’s partner (Grenier – The Devil Wears Prada, Entourage) is initially resentful of her insistence that she stay and manage the venue, he slowly begins to see a lighter side to the woman he had been told was so evil as she encourages the drag queens to use her training as a Baptist choir mistress and replace lip-synching with singing live.
This isn’t the first film about drag performers – Priscilla, To Wong Foo, Cherry Pop to name but a few – and, like them, Stage Mother needed to capitalise on the glamour and pizzazz of such places to show their appeal… but I’m not entirely sure it succeeds. What should have been a pithy script is painfully lacking humour and though it’s delightful to watch Jacki Weaver morph into the Mama Bear that we all want, the comedy that could have come from the contrast between her Texan conservative background and their liberal outrageousness is simply not present. And it really doesn’t take long for her to shift her standpoint either, meaning that the central dilemma of its plot is resolved quickly and early, relying on whimsical subplots for the remainder of the movie.
We meet four drag queens, one of whom is Dusty Muffin (played by the accomplished and famed queen Jackie Beat – Flawless), the drag mother. The others, Joan of Arkansas (MacDonald), Tequila Mockingbird (Moreno) and Cherry Poppins (Taylor – Tangerine) unfortunately lack the sparkle and zing of the older queen, without the same stage presence or command of their craft. You can very much tell that they are actors playing at drag, rather than the reverse. And it’s frustrating that Beat is the queen on screen the least, because at least with her we can see what all the fuss is about. To the untrained observer the awe of “look at those drag queens” is enough, but for the majority of an audience who has watched at least one season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, we know the difference between a seasoned queen and a pretender.
The queens become Maybelline’s children, who she mothers and looks after through all the trials of their difficult lives. They are the beating heart of the film – and they do well with this, especially Taylor, a trans character who endures multiple transphobic incidents – but they all just needed to be considerably better drag queens. Of which there are MANY in circulation who would have bitten the producers’ hands off for those parts. Just look at how Willem Belli and Shangela stole every scene in A Star Is Born from Lady Gaga, no less!
Stage Mother is light and frothy fun. Maybelline Metcalfe is an adorable character and following her journey makes for an entertaining and fun ninety minutes, but it’s not the glittering bejewelled and bedazzled celebration of drag that you might expect it to be. And, considering that they’re all singing live, it doesn’t even pack a punch in terms of its performances, as you might expect. If you’re wanting some belting numbers in which the queens really show what they can do, you’re likely to be disappointed, because everything is coasting along at a safe six out of ten. And sometimes, you really just want them to turn it right up to the max, at least once! Because whoever heard of a restrained drag queen?
OUT NOW TO WATCH ON NETFLIX.