In Pageant Material, a teen dreams of becoming a queena drag queen, that is. Rodney ( Hart Morse ) is seventeen, out of the closet and mourning the death of his beloved mother. While enduring bullying from classmates and his redneck stepfamily, Rodney holds tight to fantasies of shiny tiaras andeven brighteracceptance.
"The core of the story is about following your dreams and what you might face along the way," said Jonothon Mitchell, the director and co-writer of Pageant Material, a Cinderella-inspired narrative that will screen Sept. 24 as part of Chicago's Reeling Film Festival. "I think it's a universal feeling."
Although the Atlanta-based filmmaker and actor didn't share the drag dreams of his young protagonist, elements of his own experience made it into the screenplay he co-wrote with Madison Hatfield.
"I grew up incredibly close to my mother," Mitchell said via phone. "Rodney's deep connection with his mom is the most informed part of the film. I am the only child of a single mother, and my mom's always been my number-one fan."
Like Rodney, Mitchell came of age as a queer teen in the small-town South. He was inspired to write Pageant Material while filming a movie in Gaffney, South Carolina. Mitchell approached Hatfield, who was playing his onscreen wife, and "three days after we met we started writing a script and bouncing ideas off each other." What started as a short film soon evolved into a feature and less than six months later, cameras were rolling.
As an openly gay teen, Rodney encounters his share of bullying and violencemuch of which is depicted onscreen. "I tout this as a story of queer joy, but there's a lot [of obstacles] Rodney encounters on his journey," Mitchell said. "For me, queer joy is the ability to be unabashedly yourself in the face of adversity. Rodney knows who he is, and in every single instance he stands up for himself and fights back.
"Unfortunately, violence and bullying [are] part of the queer experience," Mitchell continued. "If we want to do justice to the story of Rodney, I think it's important to show what could and does happen to so many others."
Rodney also finds a host of allies. His best friend Monique ( Marianne Johnson ), a wannabe makeup artist, and two employees of an all-night diner all help him prepare for the pageant. In one of the film's most touching scenes, a short-order cook ( Alexander Baxter ) praises Rodney's bravery and makes a surprising confession.
"Madison had walking pneumonia while we were writing," Mitchell said. "She called me and said, 'I just wrote this monologue for Dale the line cook. If you hate it, we can get rid of it.' I hung up the phone, read it and called her back, weeping.
"As she describes to people who ask, she felt it was important to showcase a straight white man who wasn't a dick."
Mitchell and Hatfield are now working on their next project, which Mitchell describes as "an abortion road-trip romcom." Though Pageant Material was Mitchell's first foray into feature filmmaking, he's eager to repeat the process.
"With a feature it's just so much more intense and more work," he said. "But the higher the risk, the bigger the reward."
Pageant Material will screen Tuesday, Sept. 24, at 9:15 p.m. at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St. Director and screenwriter Jonothon Mitchell will attend. For more about the 2019 Reeling Film Festival, visit ReelingFilmFestival.org .