Stage Mother is essentially a “straight savior” story, but this element could have turned out far worse than the vaguely charming result. Jacki Weaver is Maybelline, a conservative church choir director who moves to San Francisco to run her son’s drag club after he overdoses. She had gone to his funeral against the will of her husband, who had disowned him, and this was the beginning of her acceptance of his life, and empathizing with what her husband had forbidden so strongly. It’s predictable, a simple redemption story where the issue is that it doesn’t understand why and what is being atoned for, with a relentless positivity that’s hard to completely hate in its earnest even when it goes wrong.
The good here is when the community healing is shown well. Maybelline is able to cope with her grief embodying the life her son had lived, and collective grief is shared between her and those he had spent time with,his life bringing them together. We get a sweet underdog story of the club growing and prospering, and we see her find purpose. It’s cheesy, brainless fluff that’s good for what it is, and Weaver is magnetic on-screen, seeming to be having fun with the role. Lucy Liu is one of the highlights of those in support. When the titular Stage Mother is actually onstage, there’s an ecstasy to her presence, though it’s hard to focus on her when the drag queens on the side seem so much more interesting to center upon.
For all the light-heartedness, there are some major issues present worth addressing. For a film within the drag scene, which is built upon the backs of trans women, it sure does love to get laughs using transphobic bathroom humor towards the end. Male lead Adrien Grenier is cringe-worthy at times, adapting exaggerated lisping mannerisms and puckering his lips to play some stereotypical character of a gay man, acting with a machismo to disassociate this character from any resemblance to his usual self. The whole thing feels so clearly alien from these communities, and the heavier parts of the film are treadupon so lightly it comes into question if these filmmakers have ever stepped foot in a gay bar (odd given how real and lovely director Thom Fitzgerald’s previous foray into lesbian film Cloudburst feels).
This brings us to the big issue: Maybelline’s son’s drug addiction is treated as an issue that exists in a vacuum. With better handling, this element could have worked to show why she is here, and why she feels like she wants to redeem herself, but there is no redemption as it never reflects upon her. It’s clear there were neglect issues, that she could have done more, and that her past handling of homosexuality among loved ones may not be great, but it’s just played for jokes and never dealt with. This lightness even extends to implying those with addiction problems should just, and are able, to stop when told, and those in abusive situations can just leave, a viewpoint so detached and removed from how gripping these things are it feels downright insulting and patronizing.
Jacki Weaver is solidly charming in this crowd-pleaser within a drag scene that only exists this way in ideas. It’s a cute story, if it had any basis in truth or nuance. It’s a white gay fantasy to take home to your suburban parents, drag 101 for the pearl-clutching crowd that plays condescendingly to a gay audience who knows better than to believe in this near utopia that sidelines talents like Tangerine‘s Mya Taylor to its cis white weekend drag queens. Much like Love, Simon, it’s queer cinema for a majority, taking away any transgression from gay-made underground cinema that built the platform for schmaltzy middlebrow “inspiration stories” that have no worry for accuracy other than “bad movies can have gay people too”.