Tuesday 21 July 2020

Dream Weaver: "Stage Mother"

There's probably never been greater spiritual need for crowdpleasing razzle-dazzle since the end of World War II, but this week's Stage Mother offers a decidedly rough-hewn form of uplift, as clunky as the platform heels worn by some of its supporting cast. Shot in a Nova Scotia that somehow has to pass for both Texas and San Francisco, and with an Australian lead cast as a drawling, down-home, red-state conservative, this feels like a North American redo of 2014's Pride, albeit with plot elements that suggest a very broad, post-Drag Race update of that fine Ben Whishaw drama Lilting. Jacki Weaver, the Aussie in question, plays one Maybelline Metcalf, a Texan choirmistress who learns that the drag queen son she estranged herself from many years before has OD-ed, and that - shock horror times two - she's thereby inherited Pandora's Box, the gay bar where her boy performed in wig and bodice to a topless mixologist and the lightest imaginable smattering of patrons. Will she: a) immediately sell up to the highest bidder, kick out her boy's live-in lover (Adrian Grenier), and invest any profits in armament stock and Christian conversion camps; or b) make a new home and life for herself in the big city, use her Southern Baptist savvy to rally the troops, and turn the bar's fortunes around in time for the pageant of some variety that is contractually obliged to provide the rousing happy ending?

Well, you know the drill by now - and you can't complain you aren't getting exactly what you've gone to see. (Before anybody asks: yes, there's a montage set to a Scissor Sisters track.) Are there any surprises? Well, you might raise an eyebrow at the casting of Entourage fuckboy Grenier as a hypersensitive lover of men, although he ranks among Stage Mother's least persuasive aspects. Better, if typically underemployed, is Lucy Liu as the deceased's BFF, a blowsy simgle mom touting a homemade cocktail she's dubbed the Banana Climax ("my secret ingredient is resentment"). And I guess it's unexpected to find Thom Fitzgerald behind the camera, given that he was last seen on UK screens with The Hanging Garden and Beefcake, an artful pre-millennial one-two that positioned him as a possible pathfinder for the then-niched New Queer Cinema. You spy him going for something a touch more sensitive than the commercial norm with actors in rooms he has to retreat into because small-town Canada isn't fooling anyone as a workable replacement for the Castro district, and his rebuilding of this community is hard to dislike, but Stage Mother is a bust dramatically because Maybelline, trailing no internalised resistance and bound by no detectable inner conflict, is pure fairy godmother/plot device, solving everybody else's problems while dispensing trailer-ready epithets ("I don't connive... I scheme"). Writer Brad Hennig nails down the set template around her: first adversity, then comeback, with a pause to insert a last-reel spanner in the works - Maybelline's hidebound husband, keen to nudge her back towards Option A - before, inevitably, the show goes on.

Stage Mother opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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