The Movie Waffler New to Netflix - STAGE MOTHER | The Movie Waffler

New to Netflix - STAGE MOTHER

stage mother review
A conservative Christian Texan woman endeavours to save her late son's San Francisco Drag club.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Thom Fitzgerald

Starring: Jacki Weaver, Lucy Liu, Adrian Grenier, Jackie Beat, Mya Taylor

stage mother poster

Are drag clubs even a thing anymore? The last dedicated one in my hometown of Cardiff shut down earlier this year, and even going there as a kid it all felt a bit old fashioned: redolent of Dame Edna and Danny LaRue and other light entertainers who were aimed squarely at your grandparents. The art abides within the mainstream, of course, with Drag Race etc; but does the idea of a subversive, countercultural drag scene still have currency? Perhaps it is a good thing that what was once clandestine and cliquey is now accepted as everyday...

Then again, I’m not sure if Nathan (Adrian Grenier - God bless him), the proprietor of a Drag Club in the Castro district of San Francisco, would be so optimistic. His fella Rickey has just gone and keeled over dead on stage, leaving the club without its star turn and co-manager. What’s more, as a very Tragic Gay, Rickey had escaped from a repressive upbringing. Hailing from Shitkickersville Texas, Rickey’s dad is a cardboard cut-out homophobe while his mother, Maybelline (Jacki Weaver), is at least, in contrast, on the dimmer, sweeter side of ignorance. Unable to accept her son’s gayness while he was alive, she is nonetheless presented as regretful at his death. When Maybelline travels across state for Rickey’s burial - "Ahm going to mah sahn’s funeral!" - and meets his wacky, bohemian pals, a real culture clash ensues! And the plot further thickens when this community choir leader discovers that the vaudevillian club is failing... Can you guess what happens next?

stage mother review

You’re probably right. Nathan is understandably wary of the woman who was such an unsympathetic parent to the person he shared his bed, his business and his life with, and Stage Mother makes much of this odd-couple dynamic. However, at the same time the film bends over backwards to create sympathy for Maybelline, and the first half hour or so is composed of exposition to set the scene for her eventual redemption. It turns out that it was really Rickey’s father who was the true villain, and soon his homebody wife is falling for the Castro lifestyle as if it is the most exciting thing ever (which, tbf, it probably is if you hail from the sort of cartoon middle-America town that Maybelline does).

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However, apart from Rickey’s OD, there is little evidence of the sort of hedonism immortalised in, say, Danny Boy and the Serious Party Gods' incredible Hi-NRG Disco track 'Castro Boy' (in fact, providing telling congruity with the film’s benign facsimile of the scene, save for a few exteriors, Halifax Nova Scotia stands in for the actual San Francisco). In terms of performance, Grenier is pretty vacant, although Weaver is at least game. Lucy Liu (looking insanely hot with chic-trashy blonde hair) turns up as a single mother pal of Rickey, Sienna. Just for good measure, Sienna has called her baby Rickey...

stage mother review

Yes, Stage Mother’s heart is in the right place, even if nothing else really is. The Castro district is ostensibly represented as a utopia of beautiful weirdos and creatives, but at the same time, for the drama to work, the film endorses the narrative of tragedy which often characterises gay stories. It is rather moving when the Castro community gets together for the funeral, of course it is; the concept of an ersatz family forged against prejudice, this idea of harmony. But you wonder, where was this supposed united front when Rickey was on the gak? Also, the uncomfortable truth is that the drag club just is not that good, really. The scene blocking of performances renders them flat, and so, unintentionally, we can see why the club is faltering. No one can blame customer prejudice, after all; this is the Castro district!

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The idea of Maybelline - a conservative, aged Texan - being the kick up the glitter which the club needs is ultimately a bit of a stretch (for one thing her lovely, open attitude towards her church choir is established as not particularly concerned with ability, a generosity that would never actually fly within the bitchy scrutiny of the drag scene). In the film’s most mental moment this unlikely avenger of all things gay pulls a gun on some mush who is attempting to force himself on Liu! However, it is homespun wisdom which is her greatest asset; to Rickey’s friends, and the district at large. Thank God for wise old straight women - where would the gay community be without them, eh? So much for charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent!

stage mother review

A steadfastly old-fashioned film then, about an increasingly niche subculture, which aims for feelgood catharsis and gets fairly close to it. However, while it is great that Maybelline overcomes the prejudice which estranged her only child, the would-be rousing climax (an endless singalong of Bonnie Tyler’s 'Total Eclipse of the Heart') seems unearned in its inevitability and the film’s otherwise benign cosiness. While it is never quite a drag, Stage Mother is also never quite as fabulous as it should be either.

Stage Mother is on Netflix UK now.

2020 movie reviews