Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"The film is at its best in its exploration of gender fluidity and the importance of being at ease with yourself."

With a kitsch spirit reminiscent of a John Waters film and musical numbers that recall everything from West Side Story and Hedwig and The Angry Inch to the retro charm of Grease and Little Shop Of Horrors, Thirsty is a biopic with energy to burn. Director Margo Pelletier, who co-wrote the script with Laura Kelber, uses the sort of set-ups familiar from musicals - including bully stand-offs, audition scenes and sudden transformations - to relate episodes from the real life of Scott Townsend (who stars as himself) and his rise to fame as Cher impersonator Thirsty Burlington.

The filmmakers aren't interested in telling a straight (or, for that matter, a gay) tale, peppering the narrative with fantasy sequences, including Scott's Powerpuff Girl-style alter ego, who pops up from time to time in blazing pink. We meet him as a youngster (Cole Canazo), living with his mum Doris (Deirdre Lovejoy), sisters and, briefly, he's dad in the Cambridge projects in Massachussets. Gender is a slippery issue for him from the start, with the local bully branding him a "girly-boy" and people mistaking him for a girl - this latter experience is something many people who grew up with indeterminate hair-length and a love for gender neutral colours and clothing will relate to regardless of sexual orientation.

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Scott's love of music is encouraged by his uncle Gene (Michael Gioia) - although he is adamant he changes the lyrics of Captain & Tenille's The Way I Want To Touch You so that it's clear he's referencing a girl. His mum, meanwhile, is fun loving but increasingly medicated and self-medicating thanks to a combination of pills and screwdriver cocktails. Although episodic, the film is linear to begin with, tracking Scott up through high school (where he is played by Jonny Beauchamp), before mapping his start and rise as a drag queen.

The film is at its best in its exploration of gender fluidity and the importance of being at ease with yourself. Scott's boyfriend Christopher (Natti Vogel), for example, has a hang up about men who don't look like men, prompting fights about Scott's job. The idea of flowing between identities is shown as the drag acts get ready for their performance - accompanied by one of several jaunty original songs composed by Chris Anderson. It is also beautifully highlighted in a scene in a gun range, where we see Scott and his friends morph from Charlie's Angels to James Bond and back again. As they change, Pelletier questions our perception, does it matter what clothes they're wearing if they're the same underneath? Or as Scott puts it later in the film, when he is dressed as a man some people find his gender defintion complicated but when he is impersonating Cher it is in some ways simpler because everyone is well aware its a guy in drag.

Some of the pacing lacks rhythm, with scenes, such as one where the teenage Scott sings a Jesus Christ Superstar favourite feeling a little too indulgent - Beauchamp is a talented vocalist but less would be more in terms of moving the narrative forward. As the film progresses, the timeline also becomes more scrappy, with the exploration of title themes such as "I'm Thirsty" and "Man Up" leading to flicking back and forth by way of illustration in ways that interrupt the narrative flow. Much of the acting is also on the stagey side, but consistently so, in a manner that suggests it is deliberately in keeping with the idea of a 'musical'.

Scott himself is a force to be reckoned with and when it comes to his impersonation of Cher - and his vocal work as Burlington - he's a five-star talent. As an actor he also shows an ability to step back in time to recreate his first tenative high-heeled steps. While the script could have used another pass to achieve a smoother finish, this is a warm-hearted charmer - endorsed by the fact it recently won an audience award at Harlem Film Festival - that offers something for audiences of any identity to think about as they walk home impersonating Cher.

Thirsty will screen at Raindance Film Festival in London on October 1

Reviewed on: 30 Sep 2016
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Musical biopic of Cher impersonator Scott Townsend.

Director: Margo Pelletier

Writer: Laura Kelber, Margo Pelletier

Starring: Scott Townsend, Deirdre Lovejoy, Cole Canzano, Jonny Beauchamp, Christopher Rivera, Keith Leonard, Michael DiGioia, Malina Weissman, Julia Ehrnstrom, Marilyn Matarrese, Steven Brinberg, Avery Ragsdale, Everett Taylor, Heidi Philipsen, Lora Lee Ecobelli

Year: 2016

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: US


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