Jacki Weaver leads a lovely ensemble in the bittersweet film about queer family in "Stage Mother"
Stage Mother is the kind of film that lands at the perfect time, when we're all grieving in one way or another: for affection, for social interaction, for connection, for love and family in the time of COVID. Opening this weekend on-demand, Stage Mother stars the legendary Aussie actress Jacki Weaver, who has starred in countless films and tv series here and her home country of Australia. Weaver plays Maybelline, a conservative choir director from Texas, and estranged mother to a gay son, Rickey. After years of estrangement, Maybelline's chances of reconnection are destroyed when Rickey accidentally overdoses and dies on stage at the drag bar he owns. When Rickey's grieving partner Nathan (Arian Grenier) contacts her with the news, Maybelline flys to San Fransisco against her husband Jeb's wishes, to attend Rickey's funeral.
While in SF, Maybelline meets the members of Rickey's found family, from the rightfully furious Nathan to Rickey's best friend Sienna (the incomparable Lucy Liu) and her baby, to Rickey's drag mother Dusty Muffin (drag legend Jackie Beat) and employees at the bar. Because Rickey and Nathan weren't married and there was no will, Maybelline inherits the struggling bar and finds herself in a totally unfamiliar world, dealing with both the grief of her loss and her own guilt of not connecting with her son for all these years. As the days go by, Maybelline extends her visit, causing friction with her husband, and becomes a part of the family that Rickey left behind. She takes a trio of drag artists (played by Mya Taylor, Allister MacDonald, Oscar Moreno) and helps them learn to sing as a group, and becomes a defacto mother figure in their lives, in a way, trying to give them what she couldn't, or wouldn't give Rickey.
Stage Mother doesn't gloss over the fact that Maybelline, a woman who probably has a novelty towelette that says "the higher the hair, the closer to God" in her powder room, let her child down. Too scared to stand up to her domineering husband, and too mired in what other people might think about her and her family, she let years go by without ever standing up for herself and her son. As she faces her catastrophic mistakes she does everything she can to help keep Rickey's legacy alive and be a soft place to land for his friends and loved ones.
Written by Brad Henning and directed by Thom Fitzgerald (Cloudburst, 3 Needles), Stage Mother really nails it with a top-notch cast. Lucy Liu is a total pleasure as the hot mess Sienna, the first of Rickey's family to welcome Maybelline in. Mya Taylor, Allister MacDonald, and Oscar Moreno make for a sweet trio of queens, who instantly capture Maybelline's heart and the viewer's. Jackie Beat's role is on the smaller side and I wished we could have seen a little more of Dusty Muffin along the way. Adrian Grenier is capable as Nathan, though his low-key performance gets lost among the other more compelling characters.
I'd be remiss to call Stage Mother a feel-good movie, as it deals with some incredibly painful situations that far too many LGBTQ people have found themselves in. For Rickey to die without truly being known by his parents is a tragedy. One that Maybelline will be trying to make up for for the rest of her life. But there are also moments of great love, forgiveness and letting go that allow Stage Mother to really express what it means to find your family and accept them unconditionally.