Stage Mother is the story of a mother dealing with the loss of her son, whilst also discovering acceptance and love of the LGBTQ+ community, and finding a fresh new start in life.
Maybelline Metcalf (Jacki Weaver) is a Texan housewife and conservative church choir director whose life is suddenly altered when she receives a phone call telling her that her son Rickey (Eldon Thiele) has died. Having not seen her son in ten years after he came out as gay, Maybelline insists on travelling to San Francisco to attend his funeral, against the wished of her homophobic husband.
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Once in San Francisco she discovers that Rickey owns a drag club, Pandora’s Box, and that she has since inherited it. She also comes to meet a number of his friends, including his neighbour Sienna (Lucy Liu) who named her son after him, and his partner Nathan (Adrian Grenier), who is now looking at losing his home and his business as he inherited nothing from Rickey, who refused to marry Nathan until his mother accepted him and came to his wedding. Feeling guilt over having not been able to reconcile with her son, and not wanting to see Nathan and Rickey’s other friends suffer and lose out, Maybelline decides to stay in San Francisco for a while and try to turn around the failing club.
Queer cinema can be a tricky area; there are so many films that centre on LGBTQ+ people that turn out to be films that try to send a message that being queer is wrong, or that living ‘the lifestyle’ will result in a person suffering or dying, that it can be hard to find a really good, uplifting one. Yes, some of these films are amazing and moving, like Philadelphia or Boys Don’t Cry, but they often leave you feeling sad, and can paint a very depressing picture of life as part of the queer community. At first glance you might think that Stage Mother would be walking a similar path – after all, it does open with a gay man and a drag queen literally dying on stage – but this is a film that seems to have a lot of love for the LGBTQ+ community, and wants to show people how much joy, love, and hope that it has.
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Maybelline is a definite outsider to this community, a woman whose only experience with the community is a son she hasn’t seen in a decade, who her husband wants to pretend doesn’t exist anymore. Suddenly she’s thrown into a world where she’s meeting a man who’s essentially her son-in-law, gay drag acts, and trans women. But despite having no experience interacting with people like this before she doesn’t judge, she doesn’t mock, or turn away. She sees them as people, real people with feelings and accepts them for who they are. She was never able to tell her son that she loved him, that she accepted him for who he was and adored the man he grew up to be, so she pours those feelings into the people at the club. She not only teaches them to be better singers and performers, but she reaches out to them and gives them the very real help that they need.
There are a few scenes in this film that really hit hard, that I think will make any member of the queer community pause for a moment because that pain of losing family and friends is something we’ve all experienced to some degree or another. Even if your family accepted you, there will have been times where you ran through scenarios where they would disown you, where you’d lose them. So many queer people have experienced that fear, and some have had to live that reality too. These moments in the film made me cry, but not always for bad reasons. There are characters that Maybelline helps who get that acceptance, who get reunited with family who’ve turned away from them. She makes parents see that they can still love their children even if they didn’t turn out the way they though, and that’s a powerful message of hope.
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Stage Mother not only represents the queer community in content, but also in its cast, with some great gay actors and drag queens taking part in the project, including Oscar Moreno, Jackie Beat, and Allister MacDonald. It also features an openly trans character, Cherry Poppins, played by real life trans woman Mya Taylor, who starred in the critically acclaimed Tangerine in 2015. It might not seem like much, but including gay and trans actors in these roles is a hugely important thing, especially in an industry that still hires cis men to play trans women.
The film doesn’t pull its punches with the hurt that can sometimes come with being a part of the queer community, but it also shows that it is a community, that love and strength can be found within it. It has a wonderful message, presented in a heartfelt and moving story full of laughs and fun moments. It’s a film that surprised me with how great is was, and whilst I was crying at the end, it was for some really good reasons.
Stage Mother is out on DVD and Digital Download on 16th November.