Taking its cue from old 1940s tearjerkers in which strong women turn their lives around through hard work and perseverance, Stage Mother is a rosy, if unrealistic, feelgood movie we could all do with right now. In Texas, Maybelline (Jacki Weaver) directs the small-town church choir. Then she’s informed by a phone call that her estranged son, a drag queen in San Francisco’s gay district around Castro Street, has died after a battle with addiction.
Maybelline is determined to attend the funeral even if it means leaving behind her disapproving and lacklustre husband Jeb (Hugh Thompson). Maybe Maybelline is not impressed with the memorial service (where her son Ricky’s former drag colleagues in big hair and bugle beads sing with microphones), but undaunted – and guilty and grieving for the son she disowned – she visits the drag bar, Pandora’s Box. Here she meets her son’s angry lover Nathan (Adrian Grenier). He faces ruin as the financially frail bar was in Ricky’s name.
Maybelline, now the bar’s owner, can cash in her chips but decides to become a silent partner and turn the place’s fortunes around. She decides to get the dragsters to sing live rather than lip-sync. “I’m a Southern Baptist choir mistress: different songs, same divas,” she quips. And of divas there are plenty, and all are troubled.
Maybelline (who even has time for a holiday romance) becomes the girls’ unlikely guardian angel, helping one get off hard drugs and negotiating a rapprochement with the antagonistic mother of another. Bibbity-bobbity-boo!
Sienna (Lucy Lui), who may be the mother of Maybelline’s grandson, offers her sofa for the stage mother’s increasingly extended stopover. When Sienna’s one-night-stand goes bad it’s Maybelline who intervenes with the aid of her purse pistol. The live-singing drag nightingales naturally are a hit and Maybelline also headlines in a rousing opening-night rendition (mawkishly dedicated to dead Ricky) of ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’. The clichés do tend to come thick and fast.
Stage Mother has some great one-liners, packs a punch and sure plucks at the heartstrings but has way too many plotlines. For example, a trans woman is forced to confront her divorce averse wife (an unresolved plot point that seems to have been mauled in the cutting room). It’s as if it’s been condensed from a TV three-parter. The playing is great, with Weaver pretty much stealing the show, although her unblinking acceptance of the druggie drag scene with it’s twerks and grinds and talk of glory holes is a tad far-fetched.
Now available in certain cinemas and on VoD