Maybelline Metcalf (Jacki Weaver) is pretty much what you imagine when you hear the name – conservative, christian, Texan. She’s the church choir director, a good friend, dutiful wife, and what the hell, a little catty. She’s also shocked and heart broken to learn that her only child is dead – a gay son who’s been estranged and battling addictions since he left for San Francisco years ago.
Though husband Jeb is determined to continue on as if they never had a son at all, Maybelline’s grief and regret lead her to San Francisco where she finds Rickey’s funeral is not quite to her taste. Her son’s drag family is performing their tribute to him and it’s all a little much for this mother who has never before claimed her son in public. Her clear disdain makes a bad first impression with her son’s grieving and offended boyfriend, Nathan (Adrian Grenier), who is suspicious of her sudden appearance. He suspects she’s come sniffing around for an inheritance, and indeed there is one since Nathan and Rickey were never married – the drag bar where everyone performs. The bar isn’t doing well with Rickey gone, so instead of going home, Maybelline inexplicably stays and not only whips the bar into shape, but nurtures the acts of Rickey’s drag family.
There is a heart ache to this film as Maybelline is clearly transferring the love and acceptance she was never able to show her son unto the surrogates she finds at the bar. And what a tragic comment on society that so many at the bar are indeed in need of mothering, even if it’s from someone else’s mother.
Director Thom Fitzgerald chooses not to have Maybelline wallow in self-recrimination; instead, she rolls up her sleeves and gets to work. Perhaps being useful and creating ties to her son’s chosen family is the only way she can cope. But overall, the film doesn’t carry a dark or heavy tone, it capitalizes on drag’s new mainstream status and concentrates on making things pretty and tuneful. The other drag performers are not much more than caricatures, but this is not about the resilient queer community of San Francisco, it’s about a traditional wife rejecting her husband’s bigotry and learning to judge based on the values in her own heart instead. Stage Mother is a bit old-fashioned, perhaps a bit dated in tone, but the movie’s upbeat feel combined with a terrific performance from Weaver makes Stage Mother a worthy watch.