A teenager decides to follow in the footsteps of their beauty pageant-winning mother, against the wishes of an angry stepfather. This play on the Cinderella story is the basis of a movie premiering at the Atlanta Film Festival, called “Pageant Material.” And here the part of Cinderella is played by Rodney, a young gay man who struggles to break out of his small town to get to Atlanta and enter a drag queen competition.
“I wanted to tell a story that spoke to me, as a queer man,” writer and director Jonothon Mitchell tells “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes. “I felt like, if I could have seen that on-screen, it would have spoke to me in a way that would have let me know that I’m seen, I’m heard, and I wanted to share that with the world.”
The Cinderella fairy tale is mostly closely mirrored in Rodney’s two step-brothers and his step-father Verne, an abusive and violent bigot.
“We wanted to explore the idea that Verne’s bigotry and hatred towards Rodney, I don’t think comes from a place solely of bigotry, it comes from a lack of understanding,” Mitchell says. “And I think it also comes from a place of pain. Losing a loved one is incredibly hard on anyone, and Verne takes a lot of that out on Rodney because he sees a lot of is mother in him.”
Co-writer Madison Hatfield points out the importance of showing dualities in characters and in setting, pointing out that while the South is full of “Vernes,” it is also full of good-hearted people like those who help Rodney on his journey. And while the character faces hostility and at times outright violence, Mitchell says he wanted the story to focus on the positive.
“I really wanted to showcase the idea of queer joy versus queer pain,” he says. “A queer character is just like everyone else. What makes Rodney different in the eyes of his heterosexual counterparts is largely what makes him the same. We all have dreams, we all want to follow them, we all have a right to.”
“Pageant Material” is getting its world premier at the Atlanta Film Festival on April 9, with an encore screening at the Plaza Theatre on April 13.