Maybelline (Jacki Weaver) is a conservative Texan choir director who leads a quiet life with her husband Jeb (Hugh Thompson). When she hears of her son Rickey’s death, she travels to San Francisco to attend the funeral. There she learns she has inherited his failing drag club. Though Maybelline’s son’s partner Nathan (Adrian Grenier) wants nothing to do with her, Rickey’s friend Sienna (Lucy Liu) takes her in. Maybelline decides to use her choir directing skills to inject new life into the drag club, becoming a mother-figure to its flamboyant performers, and learning much about her son, and herself, along the way.
Just as ‘Hamilton’ functioned as a sort of love letter to Broadway musicals and theatre in these times when stage performances simply cannot be accommodated, so too does ‘Stage Mother’ act as a love letter to the colourful world of drag. It has to be said, what a fun and feel-good tribute it is. When at her son’s service, our lead notes: “I was expecting a funeral, not a musical comedy”. Such a description is applicable to the film overall.
Not to say that ‘Stage Mother’ is exceptionally well-produced, often having the feel of a Hallmark movie. But it’s also so sweet, touching and charming that you really don’t care. It also winds up being much more emotional than you’d give it credit for.
Weaver is a delightful lead with Grenier and Liu infusing their characters with life and feeling. In addition to them, though their characters are based largely around stereotypes, Mya Taylor, Allister MacDonald, Oscar Moreno and Jackie Beat sure put on a show, all endearing in their day-to-day personas while also proving fabulous and highly entertaining in their onstage personas. Taylor, who previously starred in 2015’s ‘Tangerine’, turns in a particularly moving performance as a trans woman who has matters with her family that remain unresolved.
Initially, ‘Stage Mother’ feels a bit forceful in creating conflict after conflict, but you also believe in the drama as it is focussed around sympathetic issues like financial woes. Tougher subjects like divorce, domestic abuse and addiction can feel a little hemmed in. Then there’s the lip syncing, which can be pretty woeful, but you don’t overthink such matters. While it could just make for a TV or on-demand movie that’s of a higher calibre than you’d expect, it’s great to see a movie like this make it to the big screen. There’s something that bit special about it, and sure you can’t really complain when a film leaves you with a big smile on your face.