THE STORY – Worlds collide when a Texas church choir director inherits her late son’s drag queen club in San Francisco.
THE CAST – Jacki Weaver, Lucy Liu & Adrian Grenier
THE TEAM – Thom Fitzgerald (Director) & Brad Hennig (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 93 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
What, oh what, to do with “Stage Mother”? The story of a Southern Baptist choir mistress who takes over her son’s San Francisco drag bar after he dies of a drug overdose could have gone in any number of different directions. It could have been a campy fish-out-of-water comedy, a sobering character study, or a tale of late-in-life spiritual rebirth. It even could have been any one of these things without changing its star, the multi-faceted (and Oscar-nominated) Jacki Weaver. Instead, however, it’s a throwback to the independent gay dramas of the ’90s where a straight person suddenly gets over their homophobia after learning that someone they were close to was gay, and helps all that person’s gay friends become healthier, “better” people. Haven’t we moved beyond this messaging? Aren’t we more sensitive now?
Unfortunately, one look at your average Facebook feed will tell you that the answer to those questions is both yes and no. Popular culture has made great strides in the acceptance of LGBTQ+ folks, but there’s still plenty of homophobia out there (and even more transphobia). So the inclination to make a film with this kind of messaging makes some sense. But the problem with that inclination – and the film’s biggest miscalculation – is that the self-selecting group of people who will see a film like this in 2020 aren’t the ones who need it. And the people who do need it probably aren’t looking for it.
It’s sad because “Stage Mother” does kind of work. Jacki Weaver is charming as Maybelline, and her earnestness goes a long way towards selling the more cringe-worthy moments. One scene where she stops by a queen’s apartment to say that they should stop doing drugs, and the queen agrees, should strain all credulity. But somehow, Weaver puts it over through sheer force of will, creating rapport with her scene partner that’s not supported by the script, but feels wholly believable. Many viewers will be touched by the easy sort of wish fulfillment in how quickly the conservative Maybelline comes to care for the queens who perform in her deceased son’s bar. But the film’s fleet-footedness doesn’t help in this instance, as any character development is only glanced at in the script. Weaver manages to sell Maybelline’s character arc, but unfortunately, she’s the only one who has a character arc to sell. There are hints of arcs for some of the characters – Lucy Liu’s single mother and Mya Taylor’s trans queen – but the film tends to not care about them after the one big scene in their arc that relates to Weaver’s character helping them. The fact that these are all people of color doesn’t help, as it adds an uncomfortable layer of white savior narrative on top of everything else.
In the end, “Stage Mother” never feels like the best version of itself. It’s charming and heartwarming when you view it from a certain angle; it’s funny in a cute way but never in a laugh-out-loud way; it has no visual style to speak of but is never unpleasant to look at. If you’re willing to meet the film at its level, you’ll have a passably good time despite its many flaws. But if you want more out of a movie than something made to make conservative, white heterosexuals feel good about themselves for being so accepting of queer people, then you’d probably be better off avoiding it altogether.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A classically heartwarming film with a very fine performance by Jacki Weaver.
THE BAD – The screenplay takes too many shortcuts with the character arcs and has an unfortunate white savior undertone to it.
THE OSCARS – None