A culture-clash comedy, a teenage relationship drama, and a Philippine crime thriller, all featuring heroines dealing, in their own way, with loss, are among at-home viewing options opening this week.
In “Stage Mother,” a comedy set in San Francisco and its world of drag, an irresistible Jacki Weaver makes a potentially disastrous premise more enjoyable than seems possible, but can do only so much with the contrived material she’s bringing vividly to life.
Directed by Thom Fitzgerald (“The Hanging Garden”) and written by Brad Hennig, the movie, opening Friday on Video On Demand, is a culture-clash adventure, self-discovery journey and semi-fairy tale celebrating diversity and acceptance.
Weaver plays Maybelline, a church-choir leader who lives in an intolerant Texas town where the stars and stripes fly outside homes and God-fearing Christians abound. Upon learning that her gay son, Rickey, with whom she and her even more close-minded husband severed ties years ago, has died of an overdose, Maybelline flies to San Francisco, land of rainbow flags and colorful memorial services, for the funeral.
Overcome with the desire to acquaint herself with Rickey’s world, Maybelline moves in with Rickey’s best friend, Sienna (Lucy Liu), whose infant son she soon is babysitting. Less friendly is Rickey’s life partner, Nate (Adrian Grenier), who resents Maybelline for having abandoned Rickey.
After discovering that she has inherited Rickey’s financially ailing drag bar, Maybelline devotes herself to the club and its assorted characters. With her musical background, business savvy and motherly warmth, she wins over skeptics. She teaches the bar’s lip-synching drag divas to sing live and turns the place into a thriving nightspot that, as seen in the big musical finale we know is coming, honors Rickey’s spirit.
If that’s not enough, Maybelline also helps the drag queens and other characters address personal challenges – drugs, a disapproving mother, marital issues. She even drives away an abuser by pointing a gun at the man and issuing a salty warning in her Texas twang.
A potential romance, with a hotel concierge who frequents the Haight Street Amoeba Music store (which briefly appears in this Canada-shot film) enhances Maybelline’s San Francisco experience.
The Australian Weaver is thoroughly winning in the Maybelline role. Whether her expressive face, which receives numerous deserved close-ups, is conveying Maybelline’s fish-out-or-water disbelief or Maybelline’s joyful embrace of worlds she’s long condemned, we’re willing to follow this woman wherever the screenplay takes her.
Unfortunately, though, those places often defy believability, and the predictability of the plot and the underdevelopment of the characters further weaken the story. The film lacks the emotional resonance of upbeat culture-clash fare like the British film “Pride” or, as San Francisco stories go, a distinctive personality, “Tales of the City” style.
As she almost magically brightens one life after another, Maybelline is less Mary Ann than Mary Poppins. She’s almost otherworldly. That’s watchable, thanks to Weaver, but a less perfect, more deeply human heroine would have more satisfyingly embodied Fitzgerald’s message of acceptance and compassion.
The supporting characters are a one-dimensional lot. Grenier’s hostile Nate is a tedious bore, while Maybelline’s husband, Jeb (Hugh Thompson), is a caricature of red-state intolerance. Drag star Jackie Beat and, from “Tangerine,” Mya Taylor, both appearing in minor roles, need more to do.
Starring: Jacki Weaver, Lucy Liu, Adrian Grenier, Mya Taylor
Written by: Brad Hennig
Directed by: Thom Fitzgerald
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
“Chemical Hearts” depicts the seemingly not-survivable experience of being a teenager, through a story of two 17-year-olds who don’t, or can’t, love each other equally. While not extraordinary enough to rank as a gem in the teen-movie catalog, the film (which begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video on Friday) is funny, sad, and gentle and contains a truthful depiction of how teenagers think and feel.
Adapted from Krystal Sutherland’s similarly titled novel, the film is written and directed by Richard Tanne, who previously made the Barack and Michelle first-date charmer “Southside With You.” Again, Tanne gives his central couple lots of Richard Linklater-style walking-and-talking scenes. But this time, the characters are 17, confused, and perhaps not right for each other.
Henry (Austin Abrams), a wannabe writer from an upper-middle-class New Jersey family, lands his dream job — editor of his high-school newspaper — on the first day of his senior year. Grace (Lili Reinhart), a transfer student, has refused the post of co-editor. Henry finds Grace, who wears baggy male clothes, walks with a cane, and shuns social events, baffling and fascinating.
Intrigued, Grace soon is cautiously hanging out with Henry. The two walk in the woods together and spend time in an abandoned factory that suggests a fairy-tale netherworld along with the demons Grace is battling.
As they grow closer, as both friends and romantic partners, Grace tells Henry bits of her personal story. A heartbreaker, it involves an accident and a devastating loss.
The film doesn’t gloss over Grace’s physical disability, which Reinhart portrays convincingly, but Grace’s mental health is the primary focus. Traumatized by the accident, Grace can’t open up to Henry without shutting back down. Henry, a naive romantic, wants to fix all that is broken in Grace, and this incenses her. Soon, Henry realizes that Grace may not share his passionate feelings.
The movie isn’t of the caliber of “The Spectacular Now,” “Lady Bird” or other superior teen-movie fare. The tone is generally on the mild side. When Tanne cranks up the emotion, the drama feels overblown and stilted.
Additionally, Grace’s troubled family situation isn’t clearly defined. Enjoyable supporting characters like Muz (C.J. Hoff) and girlfriends Cora (Coral Pena) and La (Kara Young) deserve more screen time.
But the film largely satisfies as a story of a teenage relationship, and Tanne impressively captures the avalanche of confusing emotions that teens experience. The young characters talk about death, suicide, and other dark subjects in tones that successfully demonstrate they’re no longer kids.
Reinhart and Abrams share an appealing rapport. The young actors benefit from working with Tanne, who has a gift for capturing vividly on camera the sparks his actors generate.
The title refers to the physical effects that love and heartbreak can have on the body. Henry’s older sister (Sarah Jones) explains those biological workings to her love-struck brother.
Starring: Lili Reinhart, Austin Abrams, Kara Young, Sarah Jones
Written and directed by: Richard Tanne
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
“Watch List,” a thriller from the Philippines directed by Ben Rekhi (“Waterborne”), begins with a clip of President Rodrigo Duterte comparing himself to Hitler, getting his Holocaust facts wrong, and stating that he’d “be happy to slaughter” his country’s drug-addict population.
In the story that follows, a widowed mother (Alessandra de Rossi) gets involved in Duterte’s drug wars — a thicket of corrupt cops, vicious vigilantes and everyday terror — to protect her family and investigate her husband’s suspicious death.
Rekhi’s directorial touch can be heavy-handed, and the thriller genre format sometimes hampers credibility. But this is overall a brave and gripping drama addressing how Duterte’s war on drugs is an ineffective and inhumane conflict that targets small-time players in poor communities.
“Watch List” opens in virtual theaters Friday. An on-demand release is set for Sept. 1.
Starring: Alessandra de Rossi, Arthur Acuna, Jake Macapagal
Written by: Ben Rekhi, Rona Lean Sales
Directed by: Ben Rekhi
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes