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Lady Like – BFI Flare 2024

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer and Director: Luke Willis

Sashaying and deathdropping its way to BFI Flare 2024 as the closing film is Lady Like, a documentary about one of Ru Paul’s Drag Race greatest contestants, Lady Camden. Following the months leading up to the grand finale of 2022, broadcast live from Las Vegas, Luke Willis’s exquisitely shot film examines the man under the extravagant make-up and the glamorous wigs. Rex Wheeler reveals how his fears and his past inspired one of the best drag queens of all time.

Of course, not everyone has watched the ground-breaking reality show or its UK spin-off, but no prior knowledge is needed. Indeed, as most of the first hour of the film focuses on the build-up to the final, where two queens battle for the title, not knowing whether Lady Camden wins or not might give the viewer more pleasure. And for those people who have been living on the moon for the last decade or so, Willis provides animated information on how the race works.

In a film that lasts 90 minutes, it would seem as if the climax comes too early, but cleverly another destination is sought in the last half-hour, a headlining performance at Heaven. It would be some homecoming for Lady Camden who, as her name suggests, is originally from London. Rex Wheeler doesn’t remember his North London childhood with nostalgia. At school, he was bullied and his elder brother’s suicide left a hole in his life that he still struggles to fill.

Ballet was a way out; he was accepted into the Royal Ballet School and then, after, moved to America to dance in the Sacramento Ballet. But after slipping a disc, Rex took up a new career: drag queen. He was a natural and in no time at all – he is still only 33 – was a contestant in Drag Race. The differences between Rex and his fierce invention are startling. Rex is thoughtful, shy and gentle but Lady Camden is confident, smart and sassy. Rex feels that he needs to marry the two sides of his identity.

So, the film is just as much of a coming-of-age story as it is a portrait of a star. Generous footage of the hit TV show is provided along with shots of Lady Camden appearing at various bars in San Francisco and Sacramento to host the watch parties of the previous episodes. In a somewhat masochistic manner, Rex watches YouTube reviews of the show where ‘experts’ rate his appearance. They find fault in his performance and even Ru Paul tells Lady Camden that she should be more true to herself. Rex struggles with this paradox throughout the film.

For such a subject which should be full of glitter and sequins, Lady Like is a melancholic film especially when it follows Lady Camden touring in the travelling show Werq The World. It’s a lonely life of coaches and luggage. Not used to performing in such huge arenas, Lady Camden misses the intimacy of smaller venues in America where the audience showers her with dollar bills that are later stuffed into suitcases.

But there is plenty of beauty in this film too, especially the scene where Lady Camden dances a Rococo-styled pas de deux in which ballet shoes are replaced with high heels. Even the fantasy flashbacks of a young Rex searching for his inner queen are shot with verve and imagination that prevents them from being sickly sweet. Both Rex and Lady Camden find closure at the end of this striking documentary. As Ru Paul has often said, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you going to love somebody else?”

Lady Like is screening at BFI Flare 2024 from 13-24 March.

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A Homecoming Queen

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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