The Frameline44 Pride Showcase closer at 7 p.m. June 28 is “Stage Mother,” a comedy-drama with a plot — a conservative mother from rural Texas coming to terms with her late estranged son’s gay and drag queen identity in San Francisco — that may be familiar to many in the LGBTQ community. But it’s also a story that resonates personally and deeply for the film’s director, Thom Fitzgerald.
“I achieved the script and I actually almost never direct something that I didn’t write, but this one spoke to me in a particular way,” said Fitzgerald, who directed the Frameline36 film ‘Cloudburst.’ “I had lost my brother and saw my mother coming to learn about him and in a way grow closer to him after he was gone, and I really related to that aspect of ‘Stage Mother.’ The script also made me laugh a lot.”
Jacki Weaver is the film’s dynamic fulcrum Maybelline, the church choir director whose grief over her son’s sudden death is amplified by shock once she arrives in San Francisco for his funeral and learns that he owned a drag bar she now legally owns. Weaver, whose Oscar-nominated roles as the loving matron in “Silver Linings Playbook” and resolute matriarch in “Animal Kingdom,” made her a natural fit for Maybelline, but great chemistry between her and Fitzgerald helped seal the deal.
“Jacki is a delightful, warm person and I love her, and every day was a pleasure working with Jacki,” Fitzgerald says. “We first met in New York, where we went out for brunch, and the brunch basically went on for three days of drinking. She gave me her autobiography and pointed out the chapter ‘The Smallest Fag Hag in Australia,’ and I thought, yes, Jacki is the right Maybelline.”
Pandora’s Box, the drag bar Maybelline inherits because her son, Rickey (Eldon Thiele), didn’t leave a will and wasn’t married to his life partner Nathan (Adrian Grenier), is struggling when she arrives in San Francisco. But Maybelline is determined to reverse the bar’s fortunes and, with her background in music, coaches the three remaining drag queens on staff — the well-cast trio of Mya Taylor as Cherry, Allister MacDonald as Joan and Oscar Moreno as Tequila — to sing, not lip-sync. It proves a rousing success and fills the house.
“To cast the film, we knew we were shooting in Canada, so we put out a nationwide call for drag queens,” Fitzgerald says. “We got a lot of drag queens auditioning. Oscar and Allister have some drag experience, but are actors. So it was more like they infiltrated the audition process. But what I found was actors gave the strongest performances, because drag performing is very different than screen acting, two different art forms.”
The rapport and productive melding of the trio’s members are evident in the film, results that developed through an extended, close and at times fractious collaboration.
“So much of the cast came from faraway places, then people are in the studio together for weeks and weeks in that kind of familial relationship when no one really gets to go home at the end of the night; they really are together like summer camp, a very bonding experience for actors, and I think that shows in the film,” Fitzgerald says. “And they certainly loved each other and fought like brothers and sisters, and I loved that.”
The trio has a fine repertory that includes some great original songs, such as the sultry show-stopper “He Ain’t Mr. Right” and the heartwarming ballad “Beautiful to Me.” They also enjoy buoyant vocal support at the keyboard from actor Garrett Baer as a furry bartender with the appropriate name of Bear who can sling tunes — particularly a memorable duet with Cherry at the piano — as well as he slings drinks.
“I have to admit I did not know that Garrett could sing like that,” Fitzgerald says. “It was a lovely surprise on set. It was entirely like the moment in the film everyone realized the bartender was a great singer.”
The production team for “Stage Mother” included Bay Area locals — screenwriter Brian Hennig and producer Laurie Kraus Lacob — and the film showcases several beloved San Francisco cultural landmarks that regularly draw visitors to The City.
“There’s only one San Francisco and the personality of that city was very important to this particular story,” Fitzgerald says. “Maybelline going anywhere else would have not been quite the same.”
While “Stage Mother” will strike an emotional chord with those who love for San Francisco or because they personally relate to the story, it’s safe to say the film’s ultimate poignancy rests with Fitzgerald, whose mother died in March.
I’m sure that one of my grievings for relating to this story was through the experience of my mom, and I was really looking forward to her seeing the film; unfortunately, that never happened,” Fitzgerald says. “She was my stage mother.”
Frameline44 Pride Showcase
When: June 25-28
Tickets: $10 most screenings
Parade: In his 10-minute documentary about San Francisco’s 1972 gay parade, Ronald Chase focuses on the defiantly public celebrants and includes voiceover interviews with a wide range of participants and onlookers, who aren’t all supportive. The free 6 p.m. June 25 presentation includes a Q&A with the director.
Denise Ho – Becoming the Song: The documentary profiles the 43-year old Hong Kong lesbian pop diva known as much for her singing as for her human rights activism. 9 p.m. June 26.
House of Cardin: P. David Ebersole’s and Todd Hughes’ documentary profiles self-made fashion designer Pierre Cardin, Including interviews with Naomi Campbell, Sharon Stone, Dionne Warwick and detailing his attempts to diversify the catwalks of Paris with models of color wearing his looks. 6:30 p.m. June 27.
Welcome to Chechnya: David France’s prize-winning documentary focuses on queer activists in Russi who describe their experiences of detention and torture at the hands of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Putin-backed strongman who was on a mission to “cleanse” the country of gay men. 3:30 p.m. June 27.
Ahead of the Curve: Jen Rainin’s documentary about the birth, life and viability of visionary lesbian magazine Curve (founded in 1990 by Frances “Franco” Stevens) screens at 9 p.m. June 27 at the West Wind Solano Drive-In Theater in Concord with the director and subject in attendance, tickets are $23-$25 and streams at the same time.
Summerland: Gemma Arterton, slated to appear in a Q&A with the screening, stars in the World War II era film by Jessica Swale about a solitary writer whose life is changed when a child evacuated from the London Blitz is placed in her home. 11 a.m. June 28.
Lingua Franca: The film by director Isabel tells the story of the unlikely romance between an undocumented Filipina trans woman and the black sheep grandson of the older Jewish woman she takes care of. 4 p.m. June 28.