Adding “Alaska” to most any screenplay brings with it the promise of quirky. The place and the people may be ruggedly rural, with more than a few “sourdoughs” believing themselves self-reliant — especially the state’s infamous remote cabin loners. A lot of genuine characters wind up there by choice or by disposition.
Its reputation is that its where people go who don’t necessarily fit in with other people. Having lived in Kodiak for a while, covering the local eccentrics, free spirits, predators and scoundrels, I experienced it first hand.
But while I ran into the gay community in my corner of the state, I never stumbled across drag queens. Not in public, anyway.
“Alaska is a Drag” is about a gay teen (Martin L. Washington) slopping through the smelly drudgery of a salmon cannery by day, dreaming of mirror ballroom runways and strutting his stuff in gowns and party wear at night. Even though Leo never really does.
His thick-as-thieves sister Tristen (Maya Washington) is his sole audience.
They live in a travel trailer, sometimes with their religious fanatic/gambling addict dad (Kevin Daniels). But usually, he’s off on a bender — preaching or hitting the casino.
And they dream their dreams. Leo? He dreams of drag stardom in LA, which is why Maya keeps him posted of which day the latest cruise ship dump of “lost and found” items (they live in an Inside Passage port town where cruise vessels stop) goes on sale.
“Save me the ball gowns!”
“I always do!”
Writer-director Shazz Bennett had in mind a story that sends up some gay stereotypes, and clasps many others close to its bosom. That makes for a sometimes likable, often grating affair with charm and promise and some fun characters, but that in the end leaves a lot to be desired.
Leo needs to be there for Tristen when she has her chemo. She’s a teenager fighting with cancer. No idea how they’re covering that expense, but they are.
Tristen needs to ask Leo if she should “pick you up after work?” Because in this corner of a redneck-majority state, being that rare Black kid in town isn’t enough. Being Black and “fab-ULOUS” puts a target on his back. There’s always time for gay bashing. Bullying co-worker and former friend Kyle (Chris O’Shea) is usually the ring-leader.
The film’s first twist? Leo can take care of himself — martial artsing the hell out of Kyle and several of his buddies, even if eventually they usually overwhelm him.
A second twist? He’s good enough to get the attention of his boss Diego (Jason Scott Lee, who once played a super charismatic Bruce Lee in the bio pic “Dragon”). Diego runs an informal boxing gym in the back of a dockside boat storage shed.
That, by the way, is VERY Alaskan — getting double use out of the few usable structures in any given town “way out there.”
First big cliche? There’s a hunky new guy at the cannery (Matt Dallas). And they exchange smiles in that simpatico gaydar way gay coming of age romances do.
Bennett’s story proceeds through a blase narrative with a possible romance, cancer and “a big drag contest” in LA, getting a sympathetic hand from The Fish Hook, the only gay bar (not that it makes that claim) in a hundred miles, and from its proprietor — Jan (Margaret Cho).
Leo and Tristen are the soul of this piece, sharing a love of each other, a mutual love of martial arts and the odd movie quote which they turn into catch phrases.
“No matter where you go, I WILL find you!”
Memories of Mom (Nia Peeples), who abandoned them long ago, is a bond and a punchline.
“Remember what Mom used to say?”
“Get me another drink?”
Martin L. Washington’s Leo holds what there is here — which isn’t much, to be honest — together with a winning portrayal of someone who doesn’t fit in and can’t, and longs to “get out of here.” That’s a sentiment shared by most of the young people we meet.
Leo’s a stereotype, sure. He’s the theatrical, screen-writerly over-the-top gay narcissist that decades of “out” cinema have served up.
“I wish people would love everybody else the way I love me,” he says, quoting Muhammad Ali.
The players in “Alaska is a Drag” make the scattered jokes land and the cliches and stereotypes land softly, at least. Cho and Lee score laughs, Washington and Washington score more and we have hope that all the “cute” touches and quirky characters and “local color” will amount to more than it does.
Sadly, it doesn’t. But almost.
MPA Rating: unrated, violence, alcohol abuse, slurs, profanity
Cast: Martin L. Washington, Maya Washington, Matt Dallas, Chris O’Shea, Kevin Daniels, Nia Peeples, Jason Scott Lee and Margaret Cho.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Shazz Bennett. A Filmbowl Films release on Netflix.
Running time: 1:23