Though its title would seem to be a blatant attempt to cash in on last year’s Oscar champ, Mimi Riley’s documentary “Queen: The Making of an American Beauty,” unfolds as a keenly observant, balanced yet amusing look at a beauty pageant. It’s a generous work of cinema verite on every count, following in the grand tradition of the seminal “An American Family,” and as close as we’re likely to get, this side of Frederick Wiseman, to an anatomy of a beauty contest. Vastly entertaining qualities will give pic a major boost for both quality fest showcases and specialized theatrical runs, with likely strong foreign interest for this colorful look at contempo Southern culture.
While the subject — the 1998 Miss Texas Beauty Pageant — and setting might tend to draw most documakers (especially non-Texans like Riley) toward satire, if not full-blown mockery, perhaps the film’s greatest achievement is its near-total avoidance of the put-down in favor of a perspective encouraging viewer involvement. Riley’s choices here are always apt and dynamic.
In few states are the run-ups to the Miss America pageant as intense as they are in Texas, where contests are right up there with football among statewide passions. In ’98, winners from several Texas regions and cities met for the final face-off in Fort Worth, with the winner bound for Atlantic City. Brief, bouncy opening titles do the setup, then the camera zooms in on two prepping for Fort Worth: nice, clean Christian girl Tara Watson, the reigning Miss Dallas; and spontaneous, disorganized but beautiful and sparkling Angela McCulley, wearing the Miss Lake O’ the Pines crown. Angela is impossible not to like, the charmer next to Tara’s smooth pro.
Pic makes the implicit point that in this game, it’s all in the handling, and here too, the contrast between the two contestants is striking. Tara’s boss is Dallas beauty pageant director Joe Wilmouth, who is a model of pro efficiency and level-headedness. Angela’s honcho is her local pageant co-director Jack Newsom, who tends to wear his emotions on his sleeve and is obviously making do with a bare-bones operation.
Pic’s style of subdued context allows us to see that Joe and Jack are both gay men in a world dominated by contestants and families who come out of the conservative Baptist tradition. But moral conflict never arises, and only once does Joe mention in passing some problems with a Christian “pageant mother.”
Nothing emphasizes the contrast between Tara and Angela more than the gals’ choice of performance material — for Tara, it’s an efficient but inexpressive “Riverdance” routine, while Angela brings out her ventriloquist dummy, Jake, to do a dueling voices version of “Figaro.” Latter act is corny as a Texas field at harvest time, but utterly charming in its innocence and down-home humor, while providing just the note of funny absurdism that sends “Queen” into that special category of docus that capture slices of pure Americana.
Riley has clearly given her subjects a wide comfort zone before the camera, even while catching them at an intensely stressful point in their lives. A bit of the magic of “Queen” is that their stress, when we least expect it, becomes ours. Auds prepared for a campy post-JonBenet document will be surprised at the degree to which we care what happens to Tara and Angela as they reach the big night. Climax offers not only dramatic tension but the kind of ironic, bittersweet outcome that documakers dream about.
Video work is decent, generally maintaining a neutral yet intimate view of subjects.