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Like many a stage mother, Thom Fitzgerald’s comic drama is pushy. It tries too hard, in all too obvious ways, to win over the audience. But its optimistic, ultra-schematic story is an olive branch of sorts between Southern Baptist suburbia and San Francisco gaytopia — and who couldn’t use an olive branch these days, or a shot of optimism?
Despite the often heavy-handed direction of Fitzgerald, working from a screenplay by Brad Hennig (The Hot Flashes) that offers bursts of tartness amid a whole lotta strained and lesson-y exchanges, the performances often shine. Jacki Weaver is luminous and affecting as a bereaved mother who becomes an absurdly effective catalyst in the lives of her late son’s friends. And the central trio of drag performers are terrific, onstage and off. Stage Mother could prove a crowd-pleaser for audiences who are willing to overlook its clunkiness.
Weaver plays Maybelline, a church choir director who heads tearfully to the Coast for the funeral of her son, Rickey (Eldon Thiele), a drug casualty. She leaves Red Vine, Texas, over the objections of her husband, Jeb (Hugh Thompson), a character so simplistically written that the emotional stakes for Maybelline never feel particularly high. “We did it your way for 10 years,” the departing Maybelline tells Jeb, referring to their refusal to speak with their son after he moved West and came out as gay.
In the Castro District she quickly falls in with Rickey’s best friend, single mother Sienna (a warm turn from Lucy Liu, who starred in the helmer’s 2005 AIDS drama 3 Needles). From Nathan (Adrian Grenier), Rickey’s business partner and husband in all but name, Maybelline receives nothing but animosity. Understandably, he’s not pleased that she and Jeb are the inheritors of Pandora’s Box, the drag club Rickey owned and performed in — and Grenier, in a thinly conceived and unconvincing role, is saddled with especially stilted dialogue to that effect.
It couldn’t be more apparent where all this is going. Even so, Maybelline becomes enlightened, opens her heart, and spreads her maternal magic with such head-spinning rapidity that it undercuts much of the intended poignancy. First she creates a new show for the club, coaxing Rickey’s “drag sisters” — Joan (Allister MacDonald), Cherry (Mya Taylor) and Tequila (Oscar Moreno) — to sing rather than lip-sync. Naturally, they all have great voices. And the bartender just happens to play a mean piano.
More credible is the way Maybelline gets busy helping Sienna with childcare (her infant boy, not to put too fine a point on it, is named Rickey). Maybelline makes extraordinarily quick work of healing the drag sisters’ pain: She stages a one-person intervention for the drug-snorting Joan, arranges a rapprochement between Tequila and her disapproving mother, and encourages a struggling-to-transition Cherry to make a clean break from a past relationship.
“You shouldn’t let a dead marriage hold you back,” Maybelline tells Cherry — words clearly meant for herself as well. And in short order she’s caught the eye of a hotel concierge (Anthony Skordi) with a compelling bass voice, a fellow Texan who’s given an intriguing sliver of backstory.
Maybelline’s peace-making prowess extends to the club’s former hostess, Dusty Muffin (an excellent Jackie Beat, aka Ken Fuher), and goes over the top when she reveals herself to be a pistol-packing enemy of sexual abusers. She’s utterly unstoppable, and you might not be able to stop yourself from shouting “Enough already!” at the screen.
Everyone in Maybelline’s orbit is less of a hot mess after a few weeks with her, but beneath her character’s homespun superheroic surface, and beyond the writing that spells out emotions with a bold marker, Weaver gives us a tremulous, awakening spirit. She suggests the lingering confusion and self-blame over a bungled relationship with an adult child. Fitzgerald’s judicious use of flashback imagery, rather than scenes with dialogue, adeptly conveys what Maybelline and Rickey once shared, and what they lost.
Establishing shots of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Castro and the Fairmont Hotel, in combination with Michael Pierson’s superb, character-defining production design, conjure a believable City by the Bay in this Halifax, Nova Scotia-shot feature. The narrative itself might be harder to buy, but the musical performances, not least the tear-jerking extravagance of the final number (with Weaver in fine voice), always hit the spot.
Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival (Queer Cinema Today)
Production companies: Film Mode Entertainment, Branded Pictures Entertainment, Idiot Savant Pictures, Emotion Pictures
Cast: Jacki Weaver, Lucy Liu, Adrian Grenier, Mya Taylor, Allister MacDonald, Oscar Moreno, Lenore Zann, Hugh Thompson, Anthony Skordi, Jackie Beat, Eldon Thiele, Sofia Banzhaf
Director: Thom Fitzgerald
Screenwriter: Brad Hennig
Producers: J. Todd Harris, Anne Clements, Brad Hennig, Laurie Kraus Lacob, Doug Pettigrew
Executive producers: Thom Fitzgerald, Clay Epstein, Laurie Lacob
Director of photography: Thomas M. Harting
Production designer: Michael Pierson
Costume designer: James Worthen
Editor: Yaniv Dabach
Composer: Warren Robert
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