During these trying times, it’s recommended you watch films and television shows that make you feel happy, comforted, joyful. Stage Mother, a comedy about one woman’s takeover of a drag bar, sounds like just the ticket, but does it live up to its glamorous introduction?
Jacki Weaver plays Maybelline, a Southern Baptist choir mistress, content with her conservative life with husband Jeb (Hugh Thompson). But when news arrives that the couple’s son Rickey (Eldon Thiele) has passed away, Maybelline packs up her suitcase to attend his funeral, much to Jeb’s disappointment.
Why doesn’t Jeb accompany her? Because he’s homophobic. Rickey distanced himself from his family when he came out, moving to San Francisco to live out his drag queen dreams. Maybelline is soon inaugurated into his rock’n’roll lifestyle, arriving at the service to find music blaring and several of Rickey’s drag sisters twerking and pirouetting on stage. Not exactly the demure funeral she would hope for herself.
Staying in town, Maybelline discovers that Rickey owned a drag bar, Pandora’s Box, and that as his next of kin she now owns it. This puts out Rickey’s life-and-business partner, Nathan (Adrian Grenier), as this means he will have lost his love, his life, and his home in the space of a few weeks. Determined to not let that happen, Maybelline decides she’s going to relight the fire inside Pandora’s Box, creating a new stage show to attract larger, more enthusiastic audiences, to bring in more money for the club and – ultimately – to remind her of her love for her son.
While Nathan’s not so much behind her big plans, Maybelline finds comfort in Sienna (Lucy Liu), a close friend of Rickey’s, and Sienna’s acceptance of Maybelline encourages the club’s queens to accept her also. And while everyone seemingly laughs off Maybelline’s quaint, clipped accent and twee, country ways at the start, it appears she’s not only there to learn but to teach her new friends something, too.
Directed by Thom Fitzgerald (TV’s Forgive Me and Sex & Violence) and written by Brad Hennig, Stage Mother has fantastic intentions. To many watching, this may be a world they’ve never seen or experienced, so the pair want to show us some of its realities. Opening on Rickey, backstage and prepping for that evening’s show, he steadies himself with drugs and alcohol, stumbling across the stage with his make-up slowly slipping off his face. Narcotics have been associated with the LGBTQ+ club scene for decades, and is a theme that crops up throughout the story to remind us that it’s not all costume jewellery and hip-pads; that many use cocaine and whiskey to forget any troubles.
Cut to Maybelline, teaching her choir, and we know where we’re headed. Fitzgerald and Hennig make it clear from the start that if you’re anything like Jeb, you’re not going to enjoy this ride, which is why it’s almost surprising that Maybelline is so quick to dive straight in. As the story unfolds, we learn that she’s actually nothing like her plaid shirt-wearing, Republican-voting husband, and that maybe he wasn’t worth abandoning her son for. And as we near the film’s climax and saccharine-sweet ending, it’s clear where Rickey found a lot of his inspiration. Weaver’s final few minutes on screen (and on stage) are glorious, as she’s finally able to duet with her son once again. If it doesn’t leave you smiling I’m not sure what will.
With a script full of catty remarks and fantastic support from Liu, Mya Taylor, Allister MacDonald and Jackie Beat, it’s a film full of heart and soul, giving a glimpse into the lives of San Francisco’s gay community through the eyes of one mother. With such a strong cast (and diverse at that) and hard-hitting themes, I just thought it was a shame to cast Grenier as Rickey’s partner, who from a quick Google search isn’t a gay man. There are plenty of LGBTQ+ actors working in Hollywood to choose from – why not one of them?
I can imagine Stage Mother may split audiences, especially for those living within the community who might find this too unbelievable. But for those not familiar with drag, this could certainly be a peak into another world. Like a drag queen-bejewelled My Fair Lady transformation, Stage Mother tries to teach some important lessons around acceptance and finding your own family – but watch out for the toothache you’re left with after 90 minutes of this too-sweet comedy.