Released: 23rd October
Seen: 2nd November
Drag has been given something of a resurgence lately thanks to the phenomenon of RuPaul’s Drag Race. While Drag has always been around, recently it’s exploded in the mainstream with the hit reality series. Now, not only do we have Drag Race, there’s the horror equivalent in Dragula, a campy queen version on YouTube in Camp Wanakiki and probably a half dozen others for various kinds of queens.
From TV shows like AJ and the Queen (which should’ve had more than one season and I will die mad upon that hill) to movies like Cherry Pop or the Hurricane Bianca series, we’ve seen a huge uptick in entertainment focussed around drag queens. Well, Stage Mother is another one of those, it doesn’t exactly do anything new but I can’t think of a better way to introduce the topic than to point out that this movie probably wouldn’t exist without that explosion in drag.
Stage Mother follows the church going choir mistress Maybelline Metcalf (Jacki Weaver) who has just found out that her estranged son has passed away. Maybelline goes to his funeral and soon learns that her son was a drag queen who owned a bar called Pandora’s Box and now that bar belongs to Maybelline instead of her son’s boyfriend, Nathan (Adrian Grenier). Maybelline ends up sleeping on her son’s friend Sienna’s (Lucy Liu) couch and starts working on improving that bar. Along the way she’ll help one of the queens with a drug problem, a second with an issue with her mother and just generally being the magical mom who comes in to fix everything as best she can.
It’s hard to say Stage Mother is anything special, it’s kind of generic from top to bottom. The plot goes almost exactly how you expect it to from the moment you say “It’s about the mother of a drag queen who ends up owning his bar”. Congrats, the exact film you thought of just now is exactly what you get. There are no real surprises here and in a film about drag queens, I would like there to be something at least a little surprising.
Stage Mother is almost too sweet and family friendly for everything to work as well as it should. We’re meant to have a religious choir mistress turn up in a world she knows nothing about and everything is so tame that it barely feels like there’s a change, and considering they hired Jackie Beat as one of the lead drag queens and Jackie has literally written jokes for Roseanne and Joan Rivers (and the lyrics for a song by Elvira!), you’d think they’d let her get off a few cutting lines instead of shoving her aside for most of the film.
What kind of makes Stage Mother kind of work is that Jacki Weaver is a flawless performer who can do no wrong and manages to make her character so charming and sympathetic that you watch just for her. She has all the best moments, the best lines, the big finale with her will get you emotional. Honestly, without her in the lead this film wouldn’t work at all, she’s able to deliver some great little one liners while always maintaining that tone of a grieving mother who is just trying to work with what she has.
The big problem Stage Mother has is that it doesn’t feel like a film, it feels like they made a miniseries and hacked the series together into a 90 minute presentation to try and get it on a streaming service. The editing is all mixed up, there’s about 20 different storylines that’re all fascinating and could lead to something special if given the ability to move but this film is moving at such a brisk pace that we barely even get to touch on all of the plotlines.
A key example of this problem is a trio of drag sisters. One of them is a trans woman who brings up that she needs to get a divorce in order to complete her transition, one of them is a drug addict who hasn’t seen his mother in a long time and the third one of them is there and possibly has a plotline but I forget what it was. Out of the two queens with plots, only the second one actually gets some kind of conclusion to her plot, the trans woman’s plot seems to be thrown away due to time constraints and the third one is there because we need three part harmonies for the songs. A lot of these big stories get thrown away because we don’t have time to invest in them, most of the energy goes into the main storyline with the mother so all this background stuff just kind of fades away.
Which brings me to the performances… and oh boy, they aren’t great. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the Lip Sync For Your Life format of Drag Race, I’m aware that every performance can’t be a Sorry Not Sorry lip sync but come on… you’re a film, you have multiple takes and time to rehearse so if you’re going to give me a moment where the main characters hard work pays off then I expect to see a goddamn performance and I just never get that here. I get to the end and I hope for something on the level of Joyful Joyful from Sister Act 2 and instead I get karaoke lounge singing and baby queen first time in drag lip syncs… yes, this is nitpicking, but it’s also how Stage Mother is asking to measure the progression of the story by saying that the end performance is so much better than what we see in the beginning and there’s just not enough growth in the acts for them to sell that idea.
Stage Mother is… average, it’s the mainstream making a quick cheap comedy about a world that became popular but they don’t quite get. The actors are charming enough and manage to make it work and get some laughs out of all this but it feels like they crammed in too much and forgot to let things breathe. Maybe this would work as a series, just have the titular stage mother slowly repairing the business and the girls around them with every episode and see where this goes from there. But I can’t judge on what this could work as, I have to look at what’s here and what’s here is certainly fine enough to be enjoyable, but it never lives up to its full potential.