The late Richard Benner’s 1977 “Outrageous!” blazed trails as both a hit Canadian export and positive screen depiction of gay life, two relative rarities at the time. Even then, some gay viewers found the funny-sad friendship between a hairdresser/professional drag queen and a young schizophrenic woman a bit old-fashioned. But everybody was won over by Craig Russell’s stage impersonations of Hollywood stars — schmaltz and camp being a reliable combination for gay cinema with crossover ambitions.
That formula has scarcely altered 43 years later for “Stage Mother.” It’s the latest from Thom Fitzgerald, whose 1997 “The Hanging Garden” was also shot in Nova Scotia, and helped herald a new, perhaps more politically bold and artistically adventuresome generation of gay Canadian filmmakers. His more recent work has fitted into a time-tested mould of sentimental seriocomedy, however. This tale of a small-town Texas matron who inherits her estranged son’s San Francisco drag bar offers up smiles, tears and glitter fit for those who might yet find “Outrageous!” a little too outré. It’s a genial if patly contrived crowdpleaser that hits all funny-sad beats right on cue. Momentum Pictures plans U.S. theatrical and VOD release on Aug. 21.
Set in “San Francisco,” but filmed largely in Halifax, apart from scenic postcard exterior shots, the film evokes the pre-AIDS Gay Mecca of four decades ago. Brief mention of high rents aside, we seem to be in a time warp as star Jacki Weaver asks, “How many drag shows are there in San Francisco?,” the implication being “Too many to count, of course.” But in real life, the city’s last permanent, tourist-drawing such venue closed before the turn of the millennium.
Never mind: Brad Hennig’s screenplay seems content to be set in a milieu of mingled nostalgia and formulaic imagination. Cribbing from the Del Shores playbook, he introduces us to Maybelline Metcalf (Weaver), dainty but sharp-tongued Southern Baptist choirmaster in Red Vine, Texas, population 1,500. Informed her only child has fatally OD’d (we’ve already witnessed his druggy onstage collapse), she traipses off to wrap up his affairs in sinful San Francisco — sans husband Jeb (Hugh Thompson), who even in death can’t forgive their son for bein’ a quar.
She gets a frosty reception from the late Ricky’s boyfriend Nathan (Adrian Grenier) and his other business associates at drag emporium Pandora’s Box, where he both created and performed in the nightly revue. They’ve all heard tales of his rejecting Texas kin, even if Maybelline was a reluctant party to that disownment. Nonetheless, she is his heir by default. The club is in poor shape, financially and otherwise. But mom decides that rather than sell off its assets, she’ll put together a new show herself.
“Stage Mother” demands we accept that church choir duties have somehow prepared her for this task, and that hitherto lip-synching Cherry Poppins (Mya Taylor), Joan of Arkansas (Allister MacDonald) and Tequila Mockingbird (Oscar Moreno) inevitably turn out to have fine singing voices. Meanwhile Maybelline is being discreetly courted by a senior hotel concierge (Anthony Skordi), though she’s soon renting the apartment couch of Ricky’s erstwhile BFF Sienna (Lucy Liu), who needs a babysitter for her fatherless infant anyway. Needless to say, the action climaxes in a triumphant re-opening, complete with “Total Eclipse of the Heart” rendition in total earnest.
The corniness of that and so much else here has a certain comfort-food appeal. Fitzgerald lends the material as much conviction as it will bear, plus a light touch that helps tone down the more maudlin bits. But the script mostly defines characters by their dysfunctions, which somehow only a sweet li’l old Texas lady’s folksy wisdoms (and occasional gun-waving) can magically cure. The film inadvertently revives the old-school notion that LGBT folk are outwardly “flamboyant” yet inwardly lonely souls crippled by substance abuse, lack of parental love and self-acceptance, etc. Even pleasingly crass cis Sienna turns out to be a hot mess of insecurities in need of a Lone Star mom’s healing gumption. There’s a whole lot of twinkle-eyed overnight problem solving and thankful hugs in the last reel here.
After lending her character some initial flintiness, Weaver settles into a goody-two-shoes interpretation that could use a tad more edge, as well as comic snap. Ditto the club performances, which are mediocre both when Pandora’s Box is meant to be failing from depleted artistic inspiration, and when it’s packing ’em in with supposedly terrific new routines.
Nonetheless, “Stage Mother’s” trappings are colorful and lively enough to make it at least feel like the splashy, big-hearted “La Cage aux Folles”-type funfest intended. That may well be enough for viewers ripe for such a package. James Worthen’s costumes and Michael Pierson’s production design manage sufficient glitz where needed on modest means, with d.p. Thomas M. Harting’s images lending a pleasant warmth to the briskly paced proceedings overall. There’s much about “Stage Mother” that’s slightly stale, but like yesterday’s donut, the icing on top makes it both look inviting and go down easily enough.