Review: ‘God Save the Queens’ (2022), starring Alaska Thunderfuck, Laganja Estranja, Kelly Mantle, Jordan Michael Green, Peter Facinelli, Michelle Visage and Joaquim De Almeida

June 11, 2022

by Carla Hay

Alaska Thunderfuck in “God Save the Queens”

“God Save the Queens” (2022)

Directed by Jordan Danger

Culture Representation: Taking place in California’s Los Angeles County, the comedy/drama film “God Save the Queens” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class, and who are connected in some way to drag queen culture.

Culture Clash: Four drag queens find themselves at the same group retreat, where they share their stories about their personal struggles and career problems. 

Culture Audience: “God Save the Queens” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in drag queen culture and stories about people who aren’t afraid to be themselves in a world that doesn’t always accept them.

Peter Facinelli and Kelly Mantle in “God Save the Queens”

“God Save the Queens” has the right blend of spicy and sweet comedy mixed with sentimental drama in this unique story about four drag queens in group therapy at a retreat. Some of the acting is uneven, but this independent film has a scrappy spirit that’s irresistible. There’s plenty of divalicious dialogue and engaging characters that should please fans of entertainment where drag queens are celebrated and not exploited. “God Save the Queens” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

Written and directed by Jordan Danger, “God Save the Queens” is her feature-film directorial debut, after she has spent years in the entertainment business as an actress. One of the best things about the movie is that the characters (main and supporting) are written with distinct personalities. “God Save the Queens” (which is set in California’s Los Angeles County) is not the type of movie where viewers will have a hard time remembering the characters or telling the characters apart. Almost all of the drag queens in the movie are played by real-life drag queens.

Most scripted feature films about drag queens tend to make the end goal a big performance or contest that takes place near the end of the story. “God Save the Queens” features snippets of performances, but the movie’s main focus is on what the four main drag queen characters reveal about themselves when they end up together in group therapy sessions during a retreat in California’s Topanga Canyon. The movie also doesn’t play into the drag queen movie/TV stereotype of a bunch of drag queens going on a road trip together and getting various reactions when they show up in places that aren’t used to seeing drag queens.

As an example of how musical performances are not the main focus of the movie, “God Save the Queens” shows the drag queen performers on stage in montage sequences without the movie’s soundtrack playing the music that the queens are supposed to be performing. It could be because the movie’s budget didn’t allow for well-known songs to be licensed for the film, but it feels like the right choice to have a lack of karaoke-type scenes, since the story is about more about how these drag queens deal with life off stage rather than showcasing what they do on stage. The only viewers who might be disappointed in this filmmaker choice are people who might be expecting “God Save the Queens” to be like “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

The movie does a good job of introducing the main characters before they find themselves baring their souls in this retreat. All of them have their individual quirks that make them relatable to viewers. The four drag queens at the center of the story are:

  • GiGi (played by Jordan Michael Green), whose real name is Klein Carter, is a drag queen singer who is trying to make a name in the entertainment industry. Klein lives in a shabby, working-class house with his adoptive single mother Eloise (played by Ellen Gerstein), who is loving and completely supportive of who Klein is. Klein, who is a combination of confident and vulnerable, has a tendency to give pep talks to himself out loud when he looks in a mirror or window. One of his biggest celebrity idols is a Los Angeles-based charismatic female pop star named Harlowe (played by Kimberley Crossman), who is an immigrant from New Zealand.
  • Marmalade (played by Kelly Mantle), whose real name is Lewis, is a drag queen stand-up comedian and the oldest of the four queens. (Marmalade is in her 40s, while the other three queens are in their 30s.) While Klein worries about being a “never-was,” Lewis worries about being a “has-been.” In his cluttered home, where he lives alone, Lewis (who started doing drag at age 19) keeps mementos of when he won drag queen contests when he was in his 20s. Lewis is very feisty and doesn’t hesitate to cut people down with blistering comments if they do or say things that annoy him. Lewis shows a softer side to himself when he talks to his beloved pet parakeet LoToya.
  • Stevie Dix (played by Alaska Thunderfuck), whose real name is never mentioned in the movie, is a drag queen singer who is very sassy and who places a high value on honesty and loyalty. That’s why Stevie is still very hurt over how his longtime friendship ended with someone who was his best friend and partner in a musical duo act called Dix Royale. Stevie is trying to launch a career as a solo act, but is finding it harder than he expected.
  • Rita (played by Laganja Estranja), whose real name is also never mentioned in the movie, is a drag queen singer who was Stevie’s best friend and partner in Dix Royale. The two pals had a falling out over a man named Carlos. Rita confided in Stevie about having a crush on Carlos, but Rita believes that Stevie seduced Carlos (played by Francis Gonzalez), who makes a brief appearance later in the movie. Rita, who is extremely vain, likes to think she’s always the most beautiful drag queen in any room, but Rita is not so self-centered that she doesn’t have room in her heart to give and receive love.

An early scene in the movie shows that Klein is struggling to find work. He goes to interview for a home care job where he would be taking care of an elderly man. The man’s wife Esther (played by Judith Scarpone), who interviews Klein for the job, shows her prejudice when she rudely rejects Klein and tells him to immediately leave after she sees that he’s wearing nail polish. As revenge, Klein steals a small gold elephant figurine on his way out the door, and then he gives the figurine to Eloise as a gift.

Later, it’s shown that Klein’s financial woes lead him to take an offer he can’t refuse from a friend named Olive (played by Thomas Ochoa), who’s also a drag queen. Olive offers to give Klein some money and to do the marketing for an upcoming live performance by Klein’s drag persona GiGi. Things don’t go exactly as planned.

Meanwhile, Lewis/Marmalade works at a drag queen club called the Starlight Lounge, which is owned and managed by a straight guy named Simon (played by Peter Facinelli), who thinks Marmalade is the best performer at the club. Simon privately gives this compliment to Marmalade in a scene that takes place in the club’s dressing room. Other drag queens who work at the Starlight Lounge include Layla (played by Ingenue), Penny Pinch (played by Vicky Vox) and Augusta Wind (played by Jp Moraga), with Layla as Lewis/Marmalade’s closest friend.

Lewis/Marmalade also has a big admirer: a neighbor in his early 20s named Tyler (played by Denny McAuliffe), who introduces himself to Lewis one day when Lewis is about to get a car ride with Layla to go to the Starlight Lounge. Tyler, who calls himself a “drag enthusiast,” tells Lewis that he saw a torn drag outfit in Lewis’ garbage, so Tyler eagerly offers to mend the outfit and to do Tyler’s makeup. Lewis, who isn’t sure if Tyler is a stalker type, is rather standoffish and impolite in telling Tyler that he doesn’t need any help, and demanding that Tyler should only call him Lewis (not Marmalade) when Lewis is not in drag.

Stevie and Rita are now solo acts at the Plastic Pancake Palace, which is a more downscale and smaller venue, compared to the Starlight Lounge. The manager of the Plastic Pancake Palace is a butch lesbian named Charlie (played by Julie Goldman), who thinks that Stevie and Rita are better as a duo than as solo acts. Another person who feels the same way is Dix Royale’s biggest fan: a loyal customer named Nolan (played by Zack Gottsagen), who happens to have Down syndrome.

Nolan and Charlie aren’t the only ones who think that Dix Royale should get back together. Two slick executive producers of a drag queen TV talent contest called “Talent’s a Drag” show up at the Plastic Pancake Palace. Their names are Hugo (played by Joaquim de Almeida) and his son Hugo Jr. (played by Lourenço de Almeida), who tell Stevie and Rita that they want Stevie and Rita to be on the show, on the condition that Stevie and Rita perform on the show as Dix Royale.

The other condition is that Stevie and Rita need to go to therapy together at a retreat before they can be on the show. Stevie and Rita are barely on speaking terms and don’t like the idea of working together again. But the opportunity to be on this show is too good to pass up, so Rita and Stevie reluctantly agree to these conditions. Charlie warns Stevie and Rita that Hugo has a reputation for sexually harassing drag queens on the show. This reputation is something that is brought up later in the story.

It’s unclear how Klein and Lewis ended up on the retreat, but all four of the men are in the same group therapy sessions together. They talk about their lives and recent pivotal moments during multiple sessions. At first, the therapy sessions are led by a hippie couple named Guy (played by Jonathan Goldstein) and Gail (played by Rachelle Carson-Begley), who talk in a lot of New Age-type babble that isn’t very helpful.

One day, someone else (played by Luenell) is there as a substitute for Guy and Gail. (This session leader’s mystery identity is revealed at the end of the movie.) Once this sarcastic individual leads the group sessions, the four men start to open up more and have some breakthroughs. A recurring joke in these sessions is that every time Lewis starts to tell his story, he can’t finish it because the session then ends for the day.

“God Save the Queens” has some biting commentary about drag queen reality TV shows and contests that are operated by people who care mostly about causing conflicts between the drag queens and don’t really care about the drag queens as people. “God Save the Queens” director Danger has a satirical cameo as a “Talent’s a Drag” producer named Scheana, who embodies this type of showbiz callousness that’s disguised with fake smiles and pretending to be friendly with people who are exploited on reality shows.

And speaking of drag queen reality shows, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” judge/senior producer Michelle Visage has a memorable supporting role in “God Save the Queens” as a haughty talent scout named Liv, who shows up at the Starlight Lounge. Liv’s presence leads to what is probably the movie’s highlight that involves a big moment for Lewis/Marmalade. It’s one of the reasons why Mantle gives a scene-stealing performance throughout this movie.

Many movies about the LGBTQ community, even the comedies, have homophobic violence or other hate crimes as part of the story. People who are a little tired of seeing that narrative in LGBTQ movies will be delighted to know that there’s no violence in “God Save the Queens,” although the movie does responsibly show how homophobia is hurtful. Klein (who is African American) also talks about and experiences some racism.

“God Save the Queens” should also be commended from not trying to put an unrealisitc and glossy spin on the lives of drag queens, especially those who are considered on the margins of society and the ones who might never be seen on a mainstream show like “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” The movie depicts the financial realities of struggling entertainers, who often have to live with parents or in small dwellings. (For example, Rita lives in a small trailer.) It’s particularly true in large metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles County, where the cost of living is much higher than in other places in the United States.

“God Save the Queens” has moments where the movie’s acting, dialogue and pacing don’t flow as smoothly as they could. However, the movie has immensely charismatic cast members who make even the questionable parts of the movie watchable. You can tell that many of the cast members have lived the experiences depicted in the movie, which make their performances much more authentic than if they had been played by well-known Hollywood actors.

Estranja (whose real name is Jay Jackson) and Thunderfuck (whose real name is Justin Andrew Honard) are utterly believable as bickering queens Rita and Stevie. They have to deal with issues of jealousy and rivalry not only as friends but also as entertainment duo partners who are now working together again. The ups and downs of Stevie and Rita’s relationship will tug at viewers’ emotions, especially when it’s revealed that Rita and Stevie have been each other’s only family, because their biological families have rejected Rita and Stevie for being gay.

Green’s performance as Klein/GiGi is perfectly fine, but sometimes comes across as forced and hammy, as if he’s is playing a stereotype. Still, Klein seems to be self-aware that he’s kind of an oddball who talks out loud to himself, when he’s shown in a scene looking in his bedroom mirror and saying out loud, “And for fuck’s sake, stop with the monologues! Who are you? Carrie Bradshaw?” (Fans of “Sex and the City” will understand that joke.)

“God Save the Queens” is a cheeky title whose meaning is made clear by the end of the movie. The story happens to be about drag queens, but it speaks to larger issues that anyone can relate to about finding one’s identify, self-acceptance and a support system in good times and bad times. As pure entertainment, “God Save the Queens” has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and some meaningful drama that should make this movie something that a lot of viewers will want to watch again.

Review: ‘Fatima’ (2020), starring Joaquim de Almeida, Goran Višnjić, Stephanie Gil, Jorge Lamelas, Lúcia Moniz, Alejandra Howard, Sônia Braga and Harvey Keitel

August 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jorge Lamelas, Alejandra Howard and Stephanie Gil in “Fatima” (Photo by Claudio Iannone/Picturehouse)

“Fatima” (2020)

Directed by Marco Pontecorvo

Culture Representation: Taking place in Portugal mostly in 1917 and briefly in 1989, the religious drama “Fatima” features a cast of mostly Portuguese characters (although many of the actors portraying them are from other countries, such as Spain and Brazil), with one American, representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash:  Controversy ensues after two girls and a boy claim to see visions of the Virgin Mary in Fátima, Portugal.

Culture Audience: “Fatima” will appeal mostly to people interested in Catholic history or stories of religious miracles, but the movie takes such a dull and repetitive approach to the subject matter that it might turn off viewers looking for a more substantial film.

Lúcia Moniz, Marco D’Almeida and Stephanie Gil in “Fatima” (Photo by Claudio Iannone/Picturehouse)

Do you believe in miracles? The answer to that question might determine how inclined you might be to watch the religious drama “Fatima,” which is based on the true story of three Catholic children in Portugal who claimed to communicate with the Virgin Mary, beginning in 1917. Regardless if viewers have any religious or spiritual beliefs or not, the movie is so boring that it treats the subject matter as if should be told as a repetitive and droning religious lecture instead of an intriguing story with richly detailed characters. Unfortunately, director Marco Pontecorvo infuses the movie with too much tacky melodrama that cheapens the impact of the “miracle scenes.”

Most of the movie takes place in 1917, when Portugal was fighting in World War I, but parts of the movie are intercut with scenes that take place in 1989. In the 1989 scenes, an elderly Portuguese Catholic nun named Sister Lúcia (played by Sônia Braga) is being interviewed by an American visitor named Professor Nichols (played by Harvey Keitel) at her convent in Coimbra, Portugal. Professor Nichols is a religion scholar who doesn’t believe in miracles, while Sister Lúcia is famous for saying that she experienced miracles.

Professor Nicholas is visiting Sister Lúcia to ask her about her miracle experiences that she had as a child, when she and two of her cousins were at the center of a religious controversy. The professor and the nun agree to disagree on whether or not what she experienced was real. And they admit that have both have a fascination with people who have views that are opposite of their own opinions. Sister Lúcia laments to Professor Nichols that people still haven’t learned from the messages of peace that she got from her heavenly visions.

The movie’s flashbacks to 1917 show that 10-year-old Lúcia (played by Stephanie Gil) was a spirited and fairly obedient child who lived with her family in the village of Aljustrel, on the outskirts of Fátima, Portugal. Lúcia frequently accompanies her strict and religious mother Maria (played by Lúcia Moniz) to the village for shopping trips. Maria and Lúcia also gather in the village square for announcements about which local soldiers have died or have been declared missing. These tension-filled and emotional scenes demonstrate the harsh realities of war experienced by the soldiers’ loved ones who are left behind to worry about the soldiers’ well-being and fate.

“Fatima” doesn’t waste time showing that Lúcia has the ability to see religious visions. In one of the movie’s early scenes, Lúcia is in a cave, where she not only sees and hears a female angel, but Lúcia also sees visions of her bother Ti Manuel, also known as Manuel (played by Elmano Sancho), who is a soldier in the war. This scene is an example of the simplistic dialogue and schmaltzy direction that plague most of this movie.

“Who are you?” Lúcia asks the angel. The angel replies, “I am the angel of peace. I am the angel of Portugal.” While Lúcia sees terrible visions of a battlefield, she calls out desperately to Manuel, while doom and gloom music plays as if Lúcia is in a haunted house. “They don’t seem to want to stop,” the angel says of the people fighting in the war. The angel then leads Lúcia in a prayer session.

Lúcia comes from a family of farmers, so she helps out as a shepherd. One day, while she and her two younger cousins Jacinta (played by Alejandra Howard) and Francisco (played by Jorge Lamelas) are outside playing in a remote field in Fátima, they see a vision of the Virgin Mary (played by Joana Ribeiro). Actually, Lúcia sees the Virgin Mary first, and then Jacinta and Francisco see the Virgin Mary too.

Lúcia is the one with the best communication with the Virgin Mary, since the Virgin Mary speaks directly with Lúcia at all times, while Jacinta and Francisco (who are siblings) sometimes can’t hear what the Virgin Mary is saying. The Virgin Mary tells the three children that they must meet her at that location at the same time, every month for the next six months. Lúcia and Francisco tell Jacinta to keep this vision a secret, but Jacinta tells her parents, and soon the word spreads, causing alarm with some of the adults in the area.

Lúcia’s mother Maria is immediately skeptical that the children saw the Virgin Mary. She takes Lúcia to see a priest named Father Ferreira (played by Joaquim de Almeida), who also doubts that Lúcia is telling the truth. He warns Maria that even if Lúcia saw any visions, these visions could be the devil working in disguise. This thought makes Maria more determined to get Lúcia to try to go back to being a “normal” child, especially when Maria thinks that Lúcia could be branded as mentally ill or possessed by the devil.

Maria’s methods of controlling Lúcia are sometimes harsh and abusive, since she punishes Lúcia by slapping her and making threats, such as telling Lúcia that if these visions ruin the family, Maria will never forgive Lúcia. Maria also becomes irrational when she tells Lúcia that if Manuel doesn’t come back to the family, it will all be Lúcia’s fault, as if Lúcia has some kind of control over what happens during the war. Lúcia, Jacinta and Francisco also risk getting punished by their parents because they are determined to keep their promise to meet the Virgin Mary at the same place and time, every month for the next six months.

Lúcia’s father António (played by Marco D’Almeida) tries to be more understanding of the situation and doesn’t react as angrily as his wife Maria does. But António’s patience starts to wear thin after the word spreads of these miracle visions, and all the publicity starts to negatively affect the family’s well-being and safety. Crowds of people flock to the area and walk all over the family’s farming territory, which thereby ruin the crops that the family relies on for their food and income.

Lúcia’s family also starts to experience random strangers coming to their home unannounced to see the “miracle child.” Many of these strangers are on a quest to have their problems solved just by visiting Lúcia, because they believe that Lúcia’s visions come with special healing powers. Maria reacts by telling these unwelcome visitors that they have the wrong house and angrily sends them away. Maria then blames Lúcia for causing these problems for the family.

Meanwhile, Fátima’s ambitious mayor Arturo (played by Goran Višnjić) is inclined to doubt the stories of Virgin Mary visions and miracles happing at the location where the three kids see the Virgin Mary. For example, when a boy with paralyzed legs begins to have slight movement of his legs after vising the “miracle site,” Arturo says that it’s not a miracle because doctors had predicted that the legs would eventually heal with the right attitude and medical therapy.

Arturo is also concerned about how the crowds have turned his city into a public spectacle. He conspires to punish Lúcia, Franciso, and Jacinta, because he thinks that if the stories are all a hoax, it will ruin the reputation of not just the city of Fatima but also his own reputation. And he gets even more anxious about how to deal with the situation when higher-ups in the Catholic Church start to investigate these “miracle sightings.” A visit from Monsenhor Quaresma (played by Joao D’Ávila) ensures that Arturo will be thinking more about his career ambitions rather than any religious messages that come from the Virgin Mary.

One of the biggest problems with “Fatima” is the uneven quality of acting from the three children playing Lúcia, Francisco and Jacinta. Gil (as Lúcia) is an experienced film actor, while Lamelas (as Franciso) and Howard (as Jacinta) make their feature-film debuts in “Fatima.” That lack of experience shows in Lamelas and Howard’s acting, which isn’t at the same level as Gil’s acting talent. It wouldn’t be such a big issue if these three children weren’t at the center of the movie.

The wooden acting in the movie (and not just by some of the children) isn’t the only problem. The screenplay (written by director Pontecaro, Valerio D’Annunzio and Barbara Nicolosi) gets stuck on this monotonous repetition of occurrences: The three kids see the visions. Some of the skeptical adults get annoyed because they don’t believe the children. More people show up to try to witness miracles in person. And the kids getting blamed for anything that goes wrong.

All the characters are written as fairly two-dimensional. The movie doesn’t give enough screen time to Professor Nichols and Sister Lúcia, the only characters in the movie that show hints of having any real depth. It would have been interesting to hear Professor Nichols and Sister Lúcia debate their different opinions over what happened to Lúcia in 1917, when she first reported her visions of the Virgin Mary. But that type of dialogue is avoided in the movie when Professor Nichols tells Sister Lúcia that he doesn’t want to offend her by expressing his skeptical views to her.

And although religious beliefs are a serious matter to a lot of people, “Fatima” pours on such over-the-top schmaltz that some viewers might laugh at how hokey the movie’s scenes are in portraying these religious beliefs. The stilted and unrealistic dialogue, the substandard visual effects and the movie’s overall lumbering tone stifle any unique and high-quality creativity that this film could have had. Whether or not people believe that these Virgin Mary visions really happened, “Fatima” does a disservice to the story by presenting the people involved as tedious and forgettable characters instead of fascinating people.

Picturehouse will release “Fatima” in select U.S. cinemas and VOD on August 28, 2020.

Copyright 2017-2022 Culture Mix